Football: Special teams, turnovers lead to Riverhead loss

BILL LANDON PHOTO | Riverhead wide receiver Quinn Funn hauls in one of his nine catches Saturday against West Islip.


In a flash, a game that seemed destined for overtime came down to one kick.

The Riverhead Blue Waves, after dodging a bullet on a near 99-yard drive from West Islip, held the ball at their own 40-yard line on fourth down and less than a minute to play Saturday afternoon at West Islip High School.

Senior Nick Ross, who had pinned the Lions on their own 1 on his previous punt, lined up in the backfield. All afternoon Ross, whose main duty is middle linebacker, had ample time to catch the ball, take a second and punt.

But this time the Lions came in a hurry. West Islip senior James Murray lined up on the right side and surged across the line and straight toward Ross. He batted the ball as Ross attempted to kick it, sending it soaring directly up into the air and bouncing back onto the field and eventually out of bounds.

Three plays later, West Islip kicker Zach Hageman lined up for the first field goal in his varsity career, a 36-yarder to potentially win the game.

The 5-10 junior calmly drilled the ball between the uprights, lifting West Islip to a 16-13 victory and handing Riverhead its first Division II loss of the season.

“It was like slow motion as it went through the upright,” said West Islip coach Steve Mileti.

The Blue Waves (1-1) had one last chance on the ensuing kickoff, but only 4 seconds remained and the clock ran out as Jeremiah Cheatom tried to go the distance.

Special teams proved to be the difference in a game Riverhead dominated for much of the first half until turnovers started to pile up.

Riverhead coughed the ball up twice on punt returns and quarterback Ryan Bitzer was picked off twice.

“We hurt ourselves in this game,” said Riverhead coach Leif Shay. “Penalties, turnovers, things like that are going to kill you against West Islip.”

The first two Riverhead turnovers led directly to 13 West Islip points, which came in the final three and a half minutes of the second quarter.

BILL LANDON PHOTO | West Islip halfback Dan Johnson provided most of the offense for the Lions by carrying the ball 25 times.

The Lions (2-0) took a 13-6 lead into halftime before the Blue Waves got back on track in the third quarter. After Bitzer threw 24 passes in the first half, the Blue Waves opened the second half by relying on the legs of Cheatom.

“We felt we had an advantage,” Shay said. “They were tiring out and we were able to pound the ball on them a little bit. Those are things will look at on the film and get better at.”

Cheatom carried the ball 26 times for 145 yards.

Riverhead tied the game with 4:52 left in the third quarter when Bitzer threw a quick pass on fourth-and-2 to Quinn Funn on the left side. Funn raced up the left sideline for a 27-yard touchdown.

Funn had a big day with nine catches for 120 yards. Bitzer had to rely more on Funn after Jeff Pittmann went down early in the first quarter with an ankle injury. Pittmann, who starts on both ends of the field, did not return.

“I think he’ll be fine, but he just couldn’t go today,” Shay said.

Losing Pittmann hurt on special teams as well as he was unavailable to return punts.

Riverhead quickly got the ball back after tying the game and appeared on the verge of retaking the lead. But on second-and-7 from the Lions’ 34-yard line, Bitzer (18-33, 191 yards) threw over the middle to tight end Vincent Brodeur and had the ball deflect off his hands. The ball floated in the air for Joe Barcia to intercept.

After a Riverhead drive stalled near midfield midway through the fourth quarter, the Blue Waves punted and pinned West Islip on the 1-yard line. But behind the running of Dan Johnson (157 yards on 25 carries) the Lions marched deep into Riverhead territory.

The Lions momentarily appeared to capitalize on a 37-yard pass play for a touchdown to complete the 99-yard drive, but an ineligible receiver penalty negated the score. The Blue Waves’ defense buckled down and forced the Lions’ backward.

West Islip went for it on fourth-and-20 from the 30 but couldn’t convert.

The Lions only had 24 seconds to work with after getting the ball back following the blocked punt. They ran the ball twice, using their final two timeouts, to set up the field goal attempt.

“Credit to our kicker,” Mileti said. “To be put in a situation like that in your first varsity kick to win a game against a team like Riverhead, that’s football. What a life experience and memory for that kid.”

West Islip had its own injury problems to deal with when quarterback Sam Ilario had to leave the game after a head injury. Mileti said afterward he didn’t think it was as serious as a concussion.

AJ Ilchert slid over to quarterback to carry the Lions home.

Riverhead, kicking into the wind, missed two long field goals in the first half. The second came at the end of a 17-play drive that ate up a good chunk of the first quarter. Devrim Kuckuk tried a 38-yard field goal that missed. He missed on his first attempt from 43 yards.

“There’s a lot of good football teams in this division,” Shay said. “West Islip, give them credit. They executed well.”

Junior Jaron Greenidge caught five passes for Riverhead. Bitzer scored the first Riverhead touchdown with an 18-yard run.

Riverhead travels to North Babylon at 2 p.m. next Saturday.

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