Lots of competition for spots, question marks for Riverhead

Wayne Drexel, left, and Jim Pipczynski hit the blocking sled during a Riverhead practice.

Sitting in his office, coach Leif Shay rattled off the names of the only four players on his Riverhead High School football team who saw substantial playing time last season. Then, after some prodding by a reporter, the coach came up with several more names of players who have been looking good and could be starters this year. Asking who else could make an impact, the reporter received a blank stare from Shay, as if to say, “You tell me.”

This could be an interesting season for the Blue Waves, who face a great deal of uncertainty as far as starting positions are concerned. Shay, who is in his 13th year coaching the team, said there is more competition for positions than in any of his previous preseason training camps. Trying to find the best 11 isn’t easy.

“It doesn’t help me sleep at night,” Shay said. “Every day is an evaluation.”

Two years removed from its 12-0 Rutgers Trophy-winning season, Riverhead will see a lot of changes in terms of personnel. Last year’s team lost to East Islip, 3-0, in the Suffolk County Division II semifinals on Sean Moller’s 34-yard field goal with no time left. That capped a 7-3 season for the Blue Waves.

How Riverhead will fare this year is hard to say. The Blue Waves are seeded sixth in the division, but many players have little or no experience at the varsity level.

The bulk of the team’s playing experience lies in four seniors: running back/cornerback Rodney Rollins, defensive tackle/offensive tackle Curtis Conklin, middle linebacker/tight end Owen Keupp and offensive tackle/defensive end Alex Sakhno. Shay said those four are the only guaranteed starters.

“We’re a really hard-working team,” Sakhno said. “I know people are not expecting us to win every game, but I feel that the team feels that we’re going to be good.”

Those listed in the “looking good” category are wide receiver/free safety Kurt Carter, tailback/outside linebacker Charles Bartlett, middle linebacker Kevin Klerk, outside linebacker/halfback Mario Carrera and kicker Esteban Arp, a transfer from Brentwood.

Among the unsettled issues is the matter of the starting quarterback. A three-way battle involving Ryan Bitzer, Ian Jean-Pierre and Dave McKillop has yet to be resolved.

“It’s a whole different challenge, a whole different environment,” Shay said of the personnel situation.

What is Shay’s biggest concern as he prepares for the new season?

“I’m worried about the physicality,” he said. “Are we going to be able to physically handle some of the teams in our division? Division II is obviously a very tough black and blue division, so I’m a little worried with untested kids if we can be physical with those teams.”

Still, Carter is seeing progress. He said, “Everybody’s getting better every day.”

Riverhead will face a big test right from the start. The Blue Waves will hit the road to play Half Hollow Hills West, last year’s Rutgers Trophy winners, in the season-opener on Tuesday. Hills West was an offensive dynamo last season, averaging 367.7 yards per game.

“I hope my team wins, man,” McKillop said. “That’s it.”

Bishop McGann-Mercy Coach Joe Read learned a lot about his team last week. Because a bus was unavailable, the team walked to Riverhead High School for a combined practice with the Blue Waves. Then following a brutal practice, the exhausted Monarchs walked back to their school, where Read proceeded to put them through a series of 50-yard sprints.

“Not one kid moaned,” said Read.

That told the coach a lot about his team, which he said has three Cs: commitment, character and courage. “I would say this is the strongest character team I’ve had,” he said. “They’re going to give it the best effort they can.”

McGann-Mercy endured a good deal of adversity last season. The team struggled with its tackling and went 0-8. Thus, McGann-Mercy’s No. 12 seeding this year in 12-team Division IV. Perhaps that has fueled determination for this year.

“It’s definitely motivating,” said wide receiver/linebacker Henry Read, the coach’s son. “There’s no excuse for missed tackles, and there’s no excuse for losing, either. You can say like a million things, but we lost the games.”

Read is one of McGann-Mercy’s three senior all-league performers along with linebacker/running back Robbie Terry and center/linebacker Ryan Heimroth.

The team can also count on seven other returning starters: quarterback Keith Schroeher, offensive tackle/defensive tackle Anthony Bartonik, offensive tackle/defensive tackle Bobby Folkes, wide receiver/safety Tom Kretz, running back/linebacker Pat Stepnoski, special teams leader Herman Quito and wide receiver/defensive back D. J. Willmott.

Also in the mix are 6-foot-3, 220-pound lineman Anthony Heppner, offensive tackle Ray Ellis, defensive end Matt Donnell, cornerback Matt Stetler and wide receiver/cornerback Junior Paul.

The Monarchs did suffer a blow when one of their best players from last year, running back/wide receiver/cornerback Tony Marone, transferred to Longwood.

“There’s a burning desire for us to get back out on the football field,” Joe Read said. “There’s a real intense desire to get back there and show that that was a one-year letdown and we’re going to come back strong and we’re going to be competitive.”

Terry (shoulder) and Willmott (broken collarbone) are both coming off injuries. Injuries, by the way, are something the Monarchs can ill afford with a 19-player roster.

“An injury can hurt us,” Joe Read said. “We have to make a lot of adjustments. When a kid goes down, it’s not one position, it’s five.”

The coach said that if the team plays like it practices, it will be a successful season. That work ethic has been a source for optimism.

“I’m pretty sure we’re going to do a lot better,” Terry said. “We have to execute.”

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