ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead senior Jeff Pittman races into the end zone for a touchdown Saturday against West Babylon.
BLUE WAVES 42, EAGLES 0
Being the No. 1 seed in Suffolk County Division II is one thing; living up to that high seeding is something else.
Receiving the top seed in the preseason coaches poll is a nice honor, but Riverhead coach Leif Shay knows full well that it evaporates the instant the first football is kicked off in the new season. Teams prove themselves on the field, just like the Blue Waves did on Saturday.
Riverhead opened its 2012 season in impressive fashion, shutting out No. 7 seed West Babylon, 42-0, at Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field. Jeremiah Cheatom, a junior running back, broke free for touchdown runs of 62 and 61 yards, and senior quarterback Ryan Bitzer was directly involved in three touchdowns himself. Bitzer connected on scoring tosses of 46 yards to Jeff Pittman and 24 yards to Quinn Funn in addition to running for one touchdown himself on a naked bootleg from three yards out.
While the Riverhead offense generated 504 yards and didn’t turn the ball over once, the Blue Waves showed themselves to be good tacklers, too. The defensive unit forced five turnovers by West Babylon, and the Eagles never moved the ball closer than within 30 yards of the Riverhead goal line. Four West Babylon passes were intercepted, including two by the ball-hawking Jeff Pittman. Matthew Hejmej recovered a fumble and picked off a pass. Michael Von Bommel led Riverhead with seven tackles.
In short, all facets of the game were working for the Blue Waves.
“It was pretty much picture perfect, even to the punt team,” Bitzer said, referring to punter Nickolas Ross, who delivered a pair of 44-yard punts and pinned West Babylon on its own 9-yard line on another effort. “We just went out there and did our thing.”
And there was a little magic in the air on this windy afternoon. Riverhead’s first offensive play of the game was called by someone who had won a raffle to benefit Christopher Timpone, an Aquebogue Elementary School student with cancer. That play call proved to be the right one. Bitzer lofted a pass for Pittman, who was wide open, executing a stop-and-go pattern down the left side for the game’s first points 2 minutes 9 seconds into the first quarter.
“It worked,” said Shay.
Three turnovers set up three Riverhead touchdowns in the first half, which ended with the score 28-0 and the result safe in hand for the home team.
West Babylon was not at full strength. The team had been hit by injuries, and more of them followed on Saturday.
“They have a lot of injuries,” Shay said. “If you look at their sideline, it looks like a triage unit.”
Perhaps the injuries were too exasperating for West Babylon coach Al Ritacco to talk about in any sort of detail. “We just got hurt,” he said. “I just about lost my entire backfield.” Then, without any explanation, Ritacco walked away from the reporter he was speaking to, ending an interview that lasted less than 30 seconds.
By the time Riverhead’s offense took to the field 5:23 into the third quarter, Bitzer was standing on the sideline with a headset on and victory secure. His backup, junior Cody Smith, threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Hubbard for Riverhead’s final touchdown with 5:20 to go in the game.
“We kept pushing, we kept driving,” Pittman said. “We just kept doing what we had to do today.”
Riverhead had made a bold statement to anyone paying attention that it is a team to be taken seriously.
“We’re number one, we had to make a statement,” said Cheatom, who ran the ball 11 times for 159 yards. “Everybody believed in themselves.”
Bitzer, who completed 7 of 12 passes for 147 yards, expected a high-caliber performance from his team and got one. “We just wanted to come out today and prove ourselves, prove ourselves to the community, letting them know that we’re here for real, and everyone else in our division, too,” he said. “I think we did a good job with that today.”
As well as Cheatom played, Shay indicated that better days are ahead for Riverhead’s top running back. “Jeremiah doesn’t know how good he’s going to be yet,” the coach said. “He’s still learning. He’s still got to learn to read the zone properly. He has explosiveness [and] ability, but he has to learn how to just do it consistently. I wasn’t happy with a lot of two-yard runs, three-yard runs. I need four- or five-yard runs out of him. He’s got to work on that part of his game.”
One bright spot for West Babylon was the running ability of quarterback Clifton Melhado, who gained 129 yards on 25 carries.
But the light shined on Riverhead most of all. The Blue Waves showed that there is some substance behind their preseason ranking.
“It’s not a fluke at all, but it’s only the first week,” Pittman said. “We still have another seven games, the playoffs. You have to actually show what your team is made of.”
This is the third top-seeded team Shay has coached during his 15 years in charge of Riverhead. He knows that things can go south rather suddenly and he knows better than to make too much out of one game. For Week One, though, it wasn’t a bad step.
Said Cheatom, “This is the best start we could have hoped for.”