Following his team’s first victory of the season Saturday — a sometimes sloppy 12-6 win over visiting Half Hollow Hills East — Riverhead football coach Lief Shay was in a particularly jovial mood.
It was one of those rare times when something happening off the football field moved the coach far more than what happened on it.
“Nikolas Visco is home,” the longtime Blue Waves head coach said with a smile. “That’s the real good news today.”
Coach Shay said Nikolas, the first-year varsity player who suffered heatstroke during summer practices, returned home during Saturday’s game. He had been hospitalized at Stony Brook University since Aug. 17.
“I’m sure he was listening to the game on WRIV,” Shay said. “I’m sure he was cheering for his teammates to win.”
They didn’t disappoint the junior lineman. Riverhead (1-2) scored two second quarter touchdowns and then held on for dear life in the second half against a mistake-prone Hills East team.
Despite committing four turnovers and being held off the scoreboard through the game’s first 44 minutes, the Thunderbirds (0-3) came within 10 yards of tying the contest in the final seconds.
Quarterback Kenny Chavez connected with wide receiver Eric Davis on a 16-yard scoring strike to make it 12-6 with 3:35 remaining in the fourth quarter. Following a successful onside kick, that same duo hooked ip on a 23-yard pass play to setHills East up with a first down on the Riverhead 18-yard line.
The Blue Waves defense bent, but it did not break.
Senior linebacker Kyle Pipczynski — who recovered a fumble and caught an interception in the first half — helped his Riverhead team force a turnover on downs with a fourth down tackle at the 10-yard line, two yards shy of a Hills East first down with 56 seconds remaining in the game. The Blue Waves then kneeled their way to victory.
“We definitely got a little nervous there after they recovered [the kick],” Pipczynski said. “But it feels great to come away with the win.”
Especially for a progra, that got off to an 0-2 start for the first time in more than a decade. Despite the slow start, Shay said his team hasn’t lost focus.
“They’re still going out there and working hard in practice,” he said. “That’s what it takes.”
It was a pair of players who weren’t expected to start when the season began two weeks ago, who led the Riverhead offense Saturday.
Tailback Marcus Reid scored both Riverhead touchdowns in place of usual starter Ryun Moore, who did not suit up. Reid’s first scoring scamper came on a 19-yard run to give the Blue Waves a 6-0 lead with 5:42 remaining in the second quarter. Following a Thunderbirds fumble, Reid punched in his second score from 2 yards out 54 seconds before the break. The senior finished the game with 25 carries for 99 yards.
The Blue Waves second touchdown was set up by two big third down plays from junior quarterback Tristan Falisi. Making his first start after taking over under center in last week’s loss, Falisi connected with his predecessor, senior Sharron Trent, who moved to wide receiver this week, for an 11-yard pass play on a critical third and 10 with just under four minutes remaining in the second quarter. He’d later pick up a first down on a third-and-1 sneak to keep the drive alive.
After the game, Falisi said the win takes some of the pressure off the team, but he acknowledged they still have plenty more work to do at practice in the weeks ahead. It’s that work ethic that he said helped prepared he and Reid to step up when it was their turn Saturday.
“You have to do what the coaches teach you,” Falisi said. “You want to make sure you don’t take a play off during practice and that you’re always ready.”
The Blue Waves will now look to even their record at Smithtown West (2-0 heading into this week) on Friday. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.
The Blue Waves hope they can pick up another win for their teammate, as he recovers at home.
Visco’s mother, Yvette Tirado, told the News-Review her son, who is undergoing physical therapy, hopes to be able to make an appearance at Riverhead’s homecoming game on Oct. 24.
“Nikolas will continue to heal and will continue to fight to get better,” she said.