Football: With Cheatom, Blue Waves hit the ground running

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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