ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead’s airborne Keith Jefferson firing a point-blank shot that is saved by Smithtown East’s Brian Balkam.
SUFFOLK COUNTY CLASS A TOURNAMENT, FIRST ROUND | BULLS 12, BLUE WAVES 5
The Riverhead boys lacrosse team waited 11 years for this day, so when it finally arrived, the Blue Waves made sure that they were ready. But then again, so was Smithtown East.
On an historic day for Riverhead’s program, the Blue Waves turned in an effort worthy of the occasion, but the final result was predictable, nonetheless. The historical record will show that the first playoff game in Riverhead’s 11-year varsity history was a 12-5 defeat, but it was to a talented Smithtown East team, and there’s no shame in that.
Junior attackman Joe Saggese struck for three goals and five assists to lead fourth-seeded Smithtown East to the first-round win in the Suffolk County Class A Tournament on Thursday. Brian Willetts contributed three goals and one assist for Smithtown East (13-3), which will play No. 5 West Islip or No. 12 Lindenhurst in a county quarterfinal at home on Tuesday. Dan Rooney added two goals. Brian Balkam made 13 saves in goal for the Bulls.
And while the 13th-seeded Blue Waves (10-7) surely would have preferred another outcome, they could take pride in knowing that they were the first players in team history to reach the playoffs.
“Being the first team ever in Riverhead lacrosse history to be in the playoffs, just the atmosphere, it’s completely different,” said Riverhead senior attackman Ryan Bitzer, whose next game will be for Stony Brook University. “It brings it up to another level, just the intensity. I’m real proud of our team. We battled, we fought. We never gave up.”
Indeed, Riverhead did a lot of good things and did not play badly, but speed and stick skill was on Smithtown East’s side. The field turf at Nicholas Schroeder Field in St. James is built for the Bulls. It’s a fast field, and Smithtown East is a fast team. The Bulls have the ability to cleanly scoop up ground balls on the first attempt, and then they are off and running.
“It was one of our weaknesses last year, picking up ground balls,” Smithtown East coach Jason Lambert said. “I think we’ve really improved on that. Our transition game is really good. When we get going, going from defense to offense, and start picking up ground balls, we can be effective.”
ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Ryan Hubbard scored on this shot for Riverhead 1 minute 47 seconds into the fourth quarter, cutting Smithtown East’s lead to 9-4.
Riverhead is the only Class A playoff team that doesn’t play its home games on field turf, according to Riverhead coach Vic Guadagnino. “It’s tough,” he said. “I’m not complaining. … It’s a faster game on this stuff, and you can see that they’re on it all the time.”
Riverhead’s first playoff game started at precisely 4:32 p.m. with the first of 14 face-offs won by Smithtown East (as compared to seven for Riverhead). The Bulls worked the ball around in Riverhead’s end for about two minutes. Then, on Riverhead’s first possession, it scored when Dan Czelatka put in the first of his two goals 2 minutes 25 seconds into the game.
It was an encouraging start for the Blue Waves.
Perhaps Smithtown East was dealing with some playoff butterflies in the early going. A pair of goals by Saggese gave the Bulls a 2-1 lead by the end of the first quarter. Those strikes proved to be the first of nine straight goals by Smithtown East.
Even so, Riverhead didn’t fold, responding with a three-goal surge by Czelatka, Bitzer and Ryan Hubbard to cut Smithtown East’s lead to 9-4 at 1:47 of the fourth quarter.
But Rooney’s two goals and a goal by Willetts (game-high 10 shots) closed out the scoring along with Roger Foster’s goal for Riverhead.
Smithtown East’s offense can be lethal, as it showed with a 43-29 shots advantage and the pressure it put on the Riverhead defense. The Bulls scored on four of seven man-up situations. Riverhead goalie Alex Panagakos was kept busy with 12 saves.
Panagakos, one of Riverhead’s nine seniors, said the team came out flat in its two previous games. That wasn’t the case on Thursday, though.
“This is a playoff game,” he said. “Our coaches prepared us for it, and they’re right, it’s a whole another level.”
Smithtown’s only county title came in 2003 when it was one school. Since then, it split into Smithtown East and Smithtown West, and neither has won a county crown. West Islip has won the last nine Suffolk Class A titles.
Lambert compares this year’s team to the 2007 Smithtown East squad that reached the county semifinals. “This is one of our better East teams we’ve had here,” he said. “This is definitely the best team I’ve had offensively.”
Considering who they were facing, the Blue Waves did not do badly.
“I thought that even though we lost, we stepped up big,” said Riverhead senior midfielder Paul Harron, who will play for Dowling College next year. “Oh, they were good. I give them respect. They look like they’re going to go far this year.”
Bitzer said that even after Riverhead fell behind, “We still played hard. We never quit. We played all the way until the end.”
Guadagnino said he remembers every game he has coached, so he undoubtedly will not forget this one, Riverhead’s first playoff game “and not the last.”