At times during the school day, Dave Spinella gets so wrapped up in his teaching duties, he momentarily forgets what lies ahead.
Then it hits him.
“You forget for a little while, then you’re like, oh man, we got the Long Island championship Friday,” said the Riverhead girls basketball coach.
The Blue Waves will be entering uncharted territory at 7:30 p.m. tonight when they play defending Class AA Long Island champion Baldwin at Farmingdale State College, with a trip to Troy and the state final four on the line.
[For coverage of tonight’s game, follow the News-Review’s live blog]
There’s been no shortage of excitement and anticipation leading up to the biggest girls basketball game for Riverhead in nearly three decades. So much so, it can be hard for the coaches and players to think about anything else.
“I’m forgetting stuff at home, my wife’s yelling at me,” Spinella said after practice Tuesday. “There’s so much going on.”
While the players are full of nervous energy, Spinella said it’s still the same group of “clowns” he’s coached all season.
“They’re always loose,” he said. “They’re having fun. We had to reel them back in a little bit [Tuesday], and [Wednesday] we’ll get real, real focused. But you also don’t want to change. You don’t want to treat it like it’s different. You want to let them be themselves, have fun and enjoy the whole experience.”
The Blue Waves come into Friday’s game on a 22-game winning streak. Their latest win came last Friday in overtime against Southampton for the Section XI Championship.
They’ll have their hands full against Baldwin, a team that has won three straight Nassau County titles and comes into the championship with a 19-1 record.
The Bruins are led by the dynamic duo of Alex Hampton and Amber Harrison. The two have led the Bruins in scoring in each playoff win so far.
Spinella said both players can shoot and slice to the basket.
“They’re strong finishers,” he said. “They’re just very good basketball players. They pose some issues in some areas.”
The Bruins are a team that plays a similar style to Riverhead’s. They like to play man-to-man defense, can get out on the break and have strong athletes who can finish.
Spinella said the Bruins might be a little bigger and stronger, but the Blue Waves can match their speed.
“I think they do some things a little better than us and we do some things a little better than them,” Spinella said.
Hampton and Harrison combined for 39 points in the Bruins’ county championship win over Massapequa last Saturday. The Bruins squeaked into the championship game off a one-point win over Uniondale in the semifinals, 36-35.
Spinella said a focus for the Blue Waves has been working the ball on offense to get high-percentage shots and not settling at the end of the shot clock. And, of course, working on their defense.
The Blue Waves’ last two wins were both by single digits. The team hadn’t played a game that close since Dec. 29.
After playing so many lopsided games, the Blue Waves showed they could respond down the stretch of a tight game. When the Mariners came back from a double-digit hole against the Blue Waves in the fourth quarter, the team bounced back by making clutch plays down the stretch.
“It’s all good experience,” Spinella said. “Every time you get to play another game, it’s just better experience.”
The only loss for Baldwin this year came against North Babylon, a team Riverhead defeated twice this year in League III. The Bulldogs won on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. But that game was three days after Christmas, so a lot has changed since then.
The winner of Friday’s championship advances to the final four against either the Section V or Section VI champion. That’s good news for the Blue Waves, as the top team in the state, Cicero-North Syracuse, will be on the other side of the bracket.
The Blue Waves are currently ranked ninth in the state and Baldwin is sixth.