The success of the football program at Riverhead tends to have one unfortunate consequence: a slow start for the basketball team.
With the Blue Waves advancing to the Long Island championship — which was pushed back a week after the hurricane delayed games — the basketball team had several weeks of practice before the cavalry arrived from the gridiron.
“We’re fortunate that most of the kids play skill positions so they’re in good shape,” said Riverhead basketball coach John Rossetti.
With Riverhead now back at full strength after the football season ended Dec. 1, the Blue Waves are busy trying to fit everyone back together before the league season tips off.
The Blue Waves opened the non-league season with a 70-48 victory over Bellport Friday before falling to Longwood Saturday, 60-41. The game against Bellport was pushed back to allow Riverhead’s football players enough time to tally the necessary practices to be eligible for a game. On Monday, Riverhead improved to 2-1 with a 75-65 win over Copiague.
Rossetti said the biggest thing early on has been getting everyone up to speed on all the plays. Although many of the football players are veterans on the court, there are still tweaks to the offense every year that present a learning curve.
“When you’re instructing it’s like a classroom,” Rossetti said. “When they miss, it puts them behind the 8-ball.”
The Blue Waves, who won an outbracket playoff game last year before losing to Deer Park, have their sights set on returning to the postseason. To do so, they’ll rely on their Big 3 of Ryan Bitzer, Brandon Tolliver and Markim Austin.
Rossetti likes to refer to them as a “three-headed monster.”
All three players are talented offensively and can lead the team in scoring in any given game. Rossetti said depending on the defense they face, any one of the three is capable of putting up 20 points in a game.
Bitzer, the senior quarterback on the football team, had a strong season last year running the point. In a playoff win over West Babylon he scored a career-high 27 points while connecting on seven 3-pointers. He topped that with 29 points the next game against Deer Park in a losing effort.
Tolliver is a versatile forward who missed a good portion of last season recovering from an injury. Rossetti said Tolliver put in a lot of time in the weight room during the offseason. A junior, Tolliver scored in double-digits in both of Riverhead’s first two games.
Austin is a senior who gives Riverhead another strong scoring threat.
The three have now spent several years together on the court, giving them good chemistry coming into this season.
The downside for Riverhead is a lack of size. The Blue Waves, who have rarely had a 6-foot-7-type player, will need to rely on their speed and quickness to make up for the lack of height.
The Blue Waves will look to trap, press and be aggressive on defense.
“Create helter-skelter,” Rossetti said.
Rossetti will lean up two freshmen this season in Malik Washington and Tyrese Kerr. Washington scored 12 points in the season opener against Bellport.
Quinn Funn returns as a defensive stopper. Rossetti said Funn will often draw the toughest matchup on defense.
Senior Ryan Schroeher gives the Blue Waves a presence down low and is the kind of player who maximizes his ability on the court, Rossetti said.
Junior Jeremiah Cheatom, coming off an all-county season as the halfback of the football team, will be a key contributor as well. Rossetti said of all the football players, Cheatom faces the longest road to get his basketball legs.
“He took a pounding during the [football] season,” Rossetti said.
Riverhead will compete in League III again this season, where Smithtown West is the early favorite.