Riverhead football team gearing up for 2012 season

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | The Riverhead football team began practicing in pads for the first time Tuesday morning. The Blue Waves will begin the 2012 season as the preseason No. 1 seed.

Tuesday wasn’t quite judgment day for the Riverhead football team. But after four days of practicing without pads, where everybody can look like stars, it was the first day where coaches could get a good perspective of which kids are ready to play.

The Blue Waves rolled out their first hard-hitting practice Tuesday morning as their preseason training schedule, which has included two-a-days, begins to ratchet up.

“That’s when you find out the kids who have been working all summer and the kids who wanted to sit home all summer,” said Riverhead coach Leif Shay. “The kids that watch the Scooby-Doo marathons end up getting hurt a little bit.”

Football season officially kicked off last Thursday with teams across Suffolk County hosting their first practices in the morning. The Blue Waves, after an up-and-down season last year, return a large core that has them primed to be one of the contenders in Division II.

Shay said about 90 kids are in the program this year between the varsity and JV. Practices have been crisp so far, Shay said, and the players have come into camp focused.

It doesn’t hurt that the Blue Waves are the preseason No. 1 seed in the division. Shay didn’t want to put too much stock into that, saying that most of the division seems to be down a bit compared to last year. The Blue Waves have more players returning than most teams, so that led to the high ranking, Shay said.

Of course, preseason seedings can become obsolete very quickly. Last season the Blue Waves opened the season by winning at East Islip, the preseason No. 1. The Blue Waves won their next four games, including a last-second win over a Half Hollow Hills West team that figured to be one of the favorites going into the season.

But near the end of the season, it was Newfield and West Babylon that emerged as the top contenders. Newfield soundly beat Riverhead in the opening round of the playoffs as the No. 5 seed and went on to win the Long Island Championship.

While practices just started for the 2012 season, players have been training since December. There’s been weight-lifting four nights a week in addition to an added speed training workout that the players went through during the offseason.

“We did a lot more things with explosive conditioning,” Shay said.

The team brought in a speed coach, Jeff Cioliono, to work with the players and help them add more explosiveness. Shay said they’re already a quicker and faster team than last season.

That should benefit the defense, which was a weak point last year allowing 31.6 points per game. Shay said they’re more athletic on the defensive side this year. One of the key battles in practice so far has been at the linebacker position, where the Blue Waves have several players vying for time.

“There’s going to be a couple odd men out that are very good football players,” Shay said.

Nick Ross and Ryan Harkin are two linebackers along with Mike Van Bommel, a starter from last year, and Vinny Brodeur.

“You have four guys for two spots and they’re battling it out,” Shay said.

The coaching staff for Riverhead remains largely intact this year. One addition has been John Zilnicki, a 2005 Riverhead graduate who played baseball at SUNY/Cortland.

Zilnicki will work primarily as a JV assistant while also helping out with the varsity.

The Blue Waves will play their first scrimmage Aug. 29. That will feature five teams rotating against each other at Riverhead.

“We’re just trying to make sure we’re fundamentally sound,” Shay said. “We’re working on our basic defense and offensive packages.”

The Blue Waves will play a game scrimmage at home Aug. 31 against Sachem East in preparation for their season opener Sept. 8 against West Babylon.

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