Riverhead boys book playoff spot for third time in four years

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Ben Edmund, Riverhead's top scorer with 14 points, attacked the basket while Smithtown East arms tried to stop him.

Prior to the Riverhead Blue Waves’ final home game of the regular season, the boys basketball team’s eight seniors were escorted onto the court by family and friends. The players received applause, flowers and a big thank you from fans for their years of service to the program.

Then those seniors showed their appreciation for the recognition by helping the Blue Waves to a result all the Riverheaders could be thankful for — a coveted place in the playoffs.

After a one-year hiatus, the Blue Waves are returning to the postseason. They secured a playoff berth for the third time in four years on Thursday night when they won, 57-41, over the Smithtown East Bulls.

“This is big,” Riverhead senior guard Elwood Lamb III said. “We’re going out with a win, and this is going to be a great memory when we look back 10, 20 years from now. We had to play our hearts out, and that’s what we did tonight in order to come out victorious.”

From Ryan Bitzer’s three-point shot in the opening seconds, Riverhead looked sharp and turned in a complete performance as it brought its record to 8-9, 7-6 in Suffolk County League III. Nine Blue Waves made the scoresheet in the team’s third straight win. One of the seniors, Ben Edmund, led the way with 14 points. Bitzer, a sophomore, had 12 points, and another senior, Alex Sakhno, put in eight. Yet another senior, Rodney Rollins, had eight assists to go with five points.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Tim Clement of Riverhead hit the boards during Thursday night's game against Smithtown East.

“I’m sure you felt it yourself,” Riverhead Coach John Rossetti said. “There was a buzz in the air tonight. It wasn’t only from the kids. It was the fans. There was a whole different vibe in the gym tonight, and I think the fans are starting to believe in the product that’s on the floor.”

Riverhead trailed only briefly in the first quarter before pulling away. Back-to-back three-pointers by Edmund, as well as treys dropped by Bitzer and Trevon Ward, highlighted a 16-0 run that closed out the third quarter, with Riverhead leading, 49-26. The game was essentially over.

“I think we played perfect,” said Edmund.

Edmund called it the most signficant regular-season game he ever played for Riverhead. “It’s everything you worked for, countless hours,” he said. “Nobody would know, except if you were there, how hard you worked. It feels amazing.”

Smithtown East could relate. After all, a win over the North Babylon Bulldogs two nights earlier had given the Bulls their fourth playoff berth in six years.

“It’s one of the primary goals besides going for a league championship, everybody’s dream,” said Smithtown East Coach Lou Gambeski, whose team saw its record drop to 8-9, 7-6. “Obviously, the secondary goal is to make the playoffs. It establishes you as an upper-echelon [team], within your league at least.”

But Smithtown East faced a determined foe in Riverhead, which must not have relished the thought of a loss. That would have put the Blue Waves in a difficult must-win situation in its final regular-season game on Tuesday night in East Islip.

If the Blue Waves felt pressure, it didn’t show. They turned the ball over 14 times, eight less than Smithtown East, and did not allow the Bulls’ 6-foot-7 center, John Feiler, to take the game over. Feiler was undoubtedly a force under the boards, however, plucking down 15 rebounds to go with 11 points and four blocks — all team-leading figures. Dan Thixton added eight points.

But it wasn’t enough. It was Riverhead’s night.

“They just outplayed us, outworked us,” said Feiler.

Riverhead has had its rough patches this season, but Rossetti said the Blue Waves have played like a playoff team over the second half of the season.

“I would say we looked pretty impressive tonight,” Rossetti said. “We had multiple guys getting scores. We made the extra pass, and we knocked down shots. It wasn’t one guy or two guys. We had a bunch of guys knocking down open shots, and that’s the sign of an unselfish team. It’s the sign of a team that’s looking for each other.”

It’s also the sign of a playoff team.

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