Clutching onto a tenuous one-goal lead, it was time for Riverhead to run out the clock. Literally.
Following a foul by Huntington with 13 seconds left in the game, Riverhead midfielder Kayla Kielbasa had the ball in the pocket of her lacrosse stick while she raced diagonally toward the right side of the field with Huntington players desperately chasing after her.
At that point, Riverhead assistant coach Jim Janecek had simple but loud instructions for Kielbasa. “Just run!” he yelled repeatedly from the sideline as the final seconds ticked down. “Just run!”
And she did. Kielbasa kept running until the final horn sounded, and then she joined her teammates as they screamed and joyously swarmed in the opposite direction before diving on top of each other in a dogpile.
Buried somewhere underneath that pile was Emma Panciocco. “My heart was about to come out of my chest, I was so happy,” said the freshman midfielder.
That’s how the first playoff game in the Riverhead team’s seven-year history ended on Wednesday. The Blue Waves held off a late charge by Huntington for an exciting 10-9 victory in a Suffolk County Class A outbracket game at the Pulaski Sports Complex in Riverhead. Seventh-seeded Riverhead (11-6) advances to a quarterfinal Monday at No. 2 Smithtown East (14-2).
“This is just amazing,” said Megan Kielbasa, a freshman midfielder who had five goals, two assists and collected six loose balls. “This is a big step for Riverhead. We haven’t done anything like this before.”
Things don’t come easily in the playoffs. That may be the biggest lesson Riverhead took out of the intense contest against No. 10 Huntington (9-8), which had also lost to the Blue Waves during the regular season. A playoff game is a different animal than a regular-season game. “There is so much more intensity,” said Panciocco.
And pressure. The Blue Waves evidently felt that pressure during the school day and during the game.
“It was very nerve-racking,” said freshman attack Chrissy Thomas, who had three goals and an assist. “We were all nervous during the day and during the game you could see us all wiping our palms off on our skirts.”
Nerves must have reached an all-time high during the frantic final minutes. The back-and-forth affair saw four lead changes and the score tied five times. When Megan Kielbasa bounced in her fifth goal, it gave Riverhead a 10-7 lead, but there was still 3:18 left on the clock. That’s an eternity in lacrosse.
Huntington edged closer. Emma Greenhill (four goals, five loose balls) scored the next two goals for the Blue Devils, the last coming off a turnover deep in Riverhead’s end with an open goal to shoot at, making it a 10-9 game with 53 seconds to go.
Huntington’s Abby Maichin won the ensuing draw, with teammate Ryann Gaffney (two goals, one assist, six loose balls) collecting the ball.
“The pressure was on,” said Riverhead coach Ashley Schandel.
But an errant pass led to a turnover. Panciocco came up with the biggest ground ball of Riverhead’s season before a foul led to Kayla Kielbasa’s game-ending run.
Kayla Kielbasa, Megan’s sister, had one goal and two assists. Panciocco scored a goal in addition to picking up four loose balls and causing three turnovers. Sofia Salgado made five saves, her best being a stop of Izzy Piccola from point-blank range.
Seven first-half saves by Huntington’s Maya Santa-Maria helped the Blue Devils to a 5-4 halftime lead. Santa-Maria was replaced by Megan Bacik at halftime before being reinserted with 3:18 left.
Riverhead’s grit and determination won the day.
“I’m proud of our team for not letting their energy get above ours,” Schandel said. “They have a high-pressure team, and we were able to handle it.”
Thomas said the game was “beyond intensity. It was crazy. My teammates all pulled through for each other. We worked together, and that’s all I could have asked for.”
Now Riverhead is asking for more playoff magic against Smithtown East, a team that had beaten the Blue Waves, 17-7, on May 10 in the final regular-season game for both sides.
Megan Kielbasa said, “We just got to work hard for our next playoff game and keep going further because it doesn’t end here.”
Photo caption: From left, Emma Conroy, Alyssa Romer and Chrissy Thomas congratulate Megan Kielbasa after one of her five goals for Riverhead. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)