09/07/12 8:00am
09/07/2012 8:00 AM

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead junior Jeremiah Cheatom will take over as the starting halfback for the top-seeded Blue Waves this season.

In their three losses last season, including in the first round of the playoffs against Newfield, the Riverhead Blue Waves surrendered an average of 42 points per game. Even with a versatile offense capable of putting up big numbers, it was far too many points for the team to overcome.

To try to take the next step this season, in which Riverhead enters as the No. 1 seed in Division II, the team got back to the basics on defense.

“We simplified,” said Riverhead coach Leif Shay. “We felt we had good athletes out there and we didn’t need to run complex coverages. We want to be simple and let our athletes cover the ground they can cover.”

The Blue Waves’ defense got overwhelmed last season against a stronger, bigger Newfield team in the running game. The Wolverines ran in seven touchdowns against the Blue Waves in their playoff win.

The Blue Waves return a more experienced group on the defensive line this year, the first step toward clogging up those running lanes.

Senior Joseph Napoli, one of three captains, will start at defensive end.

“He was a star for us last year,” Shay said.

Seniors Kyle McCabe and Kyle Harris will plug up the middle of the defensive line along with a newcomer, junior Jonathan Lee.

Shay said Lee can squat as much as 600 pounds.

The Blue Waves came into training camp with a strong core of linebackers all competing for time. Senior Nick Ross and junior Mike Von Bommel lead the group. Senior Vinny Brodeur will also see some time at linebacker along with junior Ryan Harkin, who’s been slowed by an ankle injury.

In the secondary the Blue Waves will rely on three guys who will play on both sides of the ball. Seniors Quinn Funn and Jeff Pittman will play cornerback and junior Jaron Greenidge will start at free safety.

“The key for us is our defense,” Shay said after the team’s first scrimmage last week. “We have to be locked down and can’t allow those big plays.”

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | An improved defense will be key for the Blue Waves to advance farther into the playoffs this season.

While the defense struggled at times last year, all too often it got put in a difficult position because of turnovers. If the Blue Waves are to take that next step this season, limiting turnovers will be a huge key.

It’s something third-year quarterback Ryan Bitzer is well aware of as he begins his senior season under center for Riverhead.

“Last year we had a bunch of turnovers against the top three teams,” Bitzer said. “Especially me. I have to protect the ball better. That’s what experience comes with. I got to learn to sometimes protect the ball, run it or throw it away. Turnovers is a big thing for us. We got to keep those down.”

Bitzer will lead an offense that has the potential to be equally as explosive through the air as on the ground. While the Blue Waves lost their leading rusher from last season in Charles Bartlett, they do return a pair of strong backs. Junior Jeremiah Cheatom got a lot of action last season and will start as the featured back. Shay described Cheatom as “a grinder,” the kind of player who can pick up tough yards and can also break a big run.

Sophomore R.J. Foster, who saw some time on varsity at the end of last season, will also have a prominent role in the running game. A speedy, shifty runner, Foster will also return kicks.

“He’s very elusive,” Bitzer said. “He sees the field very well, too. He’s definitely improved from last year. He’s learning he’s got to hit the holes right. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in the future.”

Shay said he expected the offense to be even more balanced than it was last year, aided by a more experienced offensive line.

Senior Stephen Powers returns at center along with Harris at right tackle. McCabe will play left guard and senior Eric Hulse at right guard. Ross is the only newcomer to the offensive line and will play at left tackle in addition to his defensive duties.

“They got a full season of experience under their belt,” Shay said. “They’re bigger, faster, stronger.”

Bitzer said the linemen spent the entire offseason working in the weight room.

“They were lifting weights, doing what they have to do to get better, working with each other, talking to each other after practice,” he said. “Just really communicating.”

In the passing game Bitzer will have several targets, led by returning receivers Pittman and Funn. Both players had big seasons last year and can present matchup problems for opposing defenses. Pittman has great speed, which he showed off in track and field as one of the top sprinters in the county.

Senior receiver Brian Funfgeld and tight end Andrew Kinard are both threats in the passing game as well.

“Not everybody has two great corners,” Shay said. “If you have one good corner, you can only take away one guy. That gives us an advantage from the outside-in. You’re going to have to defend the entire field.”

The Blue Waves play a fast-tempo offense, which they hope keeps the opposing defense on its heels. It also leads to plenty of big-play potential.

“We push teams to the limit with our tempo,” Bitzer said. “They get worn out pretty quickly, which enables us to throw some big points on the board.”

In special teams the Blue Waves have senior Devrim Kuckuk as a kicker. A soccer player, Kuckuk will be a two-sport athlete in the fall.

“He’s got a real strong leg,” Shay said. “We haven’t had that in a long time.”

Shay said Kuckuk didn’t realize that the rules allowed him to play both sports.

The Blue Waves open the season Saturday at home against West Babylon. The Blue Waves were 5-0 last year going into their game at West Babylon when the Eagles put an emphatic end to the winning streak with a 41-6 win. Michael Richardson, the do-it-all quarterback/receiver who torched the Blue Waves last year, has graduated. West Babylon does return quarterback Clifton Melhado, who started the season last year before an injury opened the door for Richardson.

“They beat us up pretty well,” Bitzer said. “So we’re looking for a little revenge. It’ll be a good game. West Bab is always a good team.”

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09/10/11 4:01pm
09/10/2011 4:01 PM

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Quinn Funn of Riverhead tried to come down with the ball during his team's season-opening upset of East Islip.

For all of the passing that Ryan Bitzer did, it was his awareness and his legs that ultimately won the day, proving the doubters wrong and giving the Riverhead Blue Waves a major dose of confidence as the high school football season got under way.

The situation the Riverhead quarterback and his teammates faced was desperate. All the good work they had done in the first 46 minutes on Saturday was at stake, as well as the outcome of their season-opening game against the East Islip Redmen at Sal Ciampi Field at Boomer Esiason Stadium in Islip Terrace.

With East Islip leading, 35-32, Bitzer engineered a drive that started at Riverhead’s 35-yard line and reached the East Islip 4, thanks in part to a critical 25-yard pass to Mike Hinchy and back-to-back Redmen penalties. On an earlier play, Bitzer and his coaches noticed a gap in the East Islip defense, and Bitzer was instructed to exploit it if he saw it again. The play call on first-and-goal from the 4 was for a handoff to Charles Bartlett, but Bartlett never got the ball. As Bitzer stepped to the line of scrimmage, he saw an opening, decided to keep the ball himself, and powered forward for a quarterback sneak that took him over the goalline with 1 minute 38 seconds left in the game. A bad snap foiled the extra-point attempt, leaving Riverhead’s lead at 38-35.

“That was actually really scary that last drive,” Hinchy said. “We just had to execute every play flawlessly.”

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead's Kurt Carter (No. 16) managed to keep this pass out of an East Islip receiver's hands.

East Islip quarterback Pete Hanabergh then completed 3 of 4 passes before spiking the ball to stop the clock with 57.0 seconds to go, and the ball on the Riverhead 20. On the next play, though, Jeff Pittman picked off a Hanabergh pass at the 1. The sixth-seeded Blue Waves ran two plays and then celebrated. They had toppled East Islip, the top-seeded team in Suffolk County Division II, and they did it largely through their passing.

“I give our kids credit,” Riverhead Coach Leif Shay said. “I told them I was proud of them, not because we won the game. I was proud of them really just because they refused to quit, and that’s the spirit of Riverhead football.”

With Bitzer’s strong right arm and a cadre of sure-handed receivers, the Blue Waves put on an exceptional passing display. Bitzer’s passing was sharp, precise, surgical. And there was plenty of it.

Bitzer’s numbers spoke for themselves. They were staggering: a career-high 395 passing yards, 27 completions from 38 attempts, four touchdown passes and no interceptions.

“He’s a good fantasy player,” Shay joked with reporters afterward. “I hope somebody picked him up.”

Bitzer called it the best game of his career “by far.” Five receivers were on the other end of those passes, including Hinchy (11 receptions, 161 yards) and Reggie Moore (nine receptions, 137 yards), who had two touchdown catches each.

“There were unbelievable,” Bitzer said. “They were catching everything I threw at them.”

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead quarterback Ryan Bitzer used his legs to pick up some yards on this play, but he had a superb passing day.

But it really was Bitzer’s day, an impressive one to say the least for the junior and second-year starter. He made it almost look easy at times, as if he was playing catch with his receivers.

“Certainly, it puts him up there with some of the better quarterbacks in the conference,” Shay said. “We always knew he was good. … He’s so calm under pressure, and his poise is his greatest attribute. He doesn’t let things rattle him at all.”

That quality sure came in handy on Saturday.

East Islip, which trailed by 32-14 after Bitzer found Moore for a 30-yard scoring connection (and Pittman’s extra point) 4:28 into the third quarter, excited the home crowd with a near comeback. Hanabergh, who didn’t have a bad game himself, going 16 of 34 for 287 yards, found Kyle Moller, who shook a defender and raced 46 yards for a go-ahead touchdown with 2:36 to go in the game. It was Hanabergh’s second touchdown pass of the game (his first was a 30-yarder to Joe Modica earlier in the quarter). Tyler Rigo ran in a two-point conversion, making it 35-32 East Islip.

Overshadowed by Bitzer’s play were exceptional performances by Hanabergh and Rigo, who ran for three touchdowns and 106 yards. Moller was Hanabergh’s favorite receiver, making five grabs for 122 yards.

It was an offensive explosion, with both teams combining for 42 first downs and 956 yards in total offense.

The game’s first points came courtesy of Bartlett, who found his way around the left side from 10 yards out for a 6-0 Riverhead lead on the game’s opening series.

But six of those first 10 plays by Riverhead were passes. With East Islip holding a size advantage on the line, Riverhead felt compelled to take the aerial route.

“We knew we could throw the ball, but I didn’t really expect this,” said Hinchy, whose two touchdowns helped Riverhead to a 19-7 lead in the first quarter.

Shay said he would have to review the game film before giving Bitzer a grade on his performance, but regardless, it sounded like he is going to keep his young quarterback’s feet on the ground.

“Certainly, there’s no such thing as a perfect game,” Shay said. “We expect big things out of Ryan, but we’re not going to let him think he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, either. He’s going to continue to work hard and develop.”

That could be a chilling thought for the rest of the division.

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08/26/11 3:58pm
08/26/2011 3:58 PM

BOB LIEPA PHOTO | Jeremiah Cheatom scored 22 rushing touchdowns for Riverhead's junior varsity team last year and then ran for two more in his varsity debut.

Twenty-two rushing touchdowns in a season is quite a feat, but it wasn’t all those touchdowns that Jeremiah Cheatom rang up in seven games for the Riverhead High School junior varsity football team last season that marked the highlight of his freshman year. No, it was the two touchdowns that Cheatom ran for in his varsity debut that he liked best.

Three days before the Blue Waves’ final game of a 2-6 season, Cheatom received word that he was being pulled up to the varsity team to be given a look.

“I was excited, but also nervous,” he recalled, “but I was ready.”

There was no doubting that.

The Blue Waves took a peak into their future and liked what they saw. Cheatom, the touchdown maker, proved to be a handful that day, spoiling things for the Smithtown East Bulls, whose new field turf was christened with a 40-13 loss to the Blue Waves. The young running back bolted for a pair of second-quarter touchdowns and finished the day with 64 yards from 11 carries.

BOB LIEPA PHOTO | Reggie Moore, a senior H-back, is one of several ball-carrying options for Riverhead.

Cheatom may have opened some eyes — at least those of outsiders — that day, but his teammates knew what he could do.

“I knew about Jeremiah Cheatom,” Charles Bartlett, a senior running back and middle linebacker for the Blue Waves, said. “I knew him for a long time. I knew he was good, and I knew that was going to happen. He’s going to be a good running back. I told him just to go play his game, and he did that.”

Riverhead’s junior quarterback, Ryan Bitzer, said: “I heard all the coaches talking about him. I saw some of his games on the JV, and he was tearing it up there, too.”

With no playoffs to look forward to for the first time in five years, the Blue Waves could at least take comfort in knowing that they had another capable ball carrier in their corral. Now it looks as if the Blue Waves will hit the ground running with their running game in 2011.

On the same day that Cheatom began his varsity career, Bartlett banged out 125 yards and a touchdown on 12 rushing attempts. He finished the season as the team’s leading rusher with 773 yards from 138 carries (5.6 yards per carry) as well as four touchdowns.

Bitzer has other weapons at his disposal. In addition to Bartlett and Cheatom, junior Jeff Pittman is another viable starter at tailback. Bitzer can also place the ball in the hands of Reggie Moore, a senior H-back who has already made a name for himself as a scoring threat.

BOB LIEPA PHOTO | Riverhead quarterback Ryan Bitzer is anticipating a more consistent running game this year.

All of them offer speed and elusive moves, enough to give opposing defenses cause to shudder.

“We have a lot of speed back there,” Coach Leif Shay said. “Last year’s running game was sporadic. We had days when we ran the ball well, and we had days when we struggled a bit. This year’s running game is still a work in progress. We have some big guys up front, but they haven’t worked together. We certainly have the running back depth and speed this year.”

Bitzer said: “Last season we had a lot of speed, but we weren’t really consistent, so I think it will be a lot different this year. I think we’ll be faster, stronger, and more consistent, and I think the line will be a little better, too.”

What’s more, Shay said the offense has more balance.

Shay said Cheatom, who runs a 4.7-second 40-yard dash, reminded him of Chris Harris, a former standout running back for Riverhead. In at least one aspect, Bitzer sees a similarity with Miguel Maysonet, the former Hansen Award winner for Riverhead who now plays for Stony Brook University. “He’s fast, he’s strong, and he sees the field good like when Miguel did when he was here,” said Bitzer.

Through offseason workouts in the weight room, Cheatom is stronger, but he said he is also smarter than he was a year ago. His path has been helped by Bartlett, who has given him the benefit of his knowledge.

But part of what Cheatom does on the football field is instinctual.

“He has a great forward lean,” Shay said. “He gets you that extra five yards. He’s got great vision. He sees cutback lanes where other kids can’t, so he definitely has the potential to see and do a lot of things.”

Cheatom said: “When I’m in the backfield, it’s sort of like slow motion. I can see the play before it’s going to happen.”

Playing the role of prophet, Cheatom said: “We’re a solid running team. We’re going to get a lot of yards this year.”

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