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Football: Riverhead looks set with H-backs as preseason begins

Consider the modern football marvel that is the multi-talented H-back. Set back from the line of scrimmage, he must be able to serve as a fullback, receiver or tight end at various times, depending on the needs of the moment. That means he must be able to block, run with the ball and catch it.

That’s asking a lot of a player, but Riverhead High School coach Leif Shay believes he has two H-backs who are up to the challenge in seniors Dean Koukounas and Ben Mearkle.

“The offense goes through guys like that, and they got to be highly intelligent; both of them guys are,” Shay said Monday morning after the team completed its first preseason practice.

At 6 feet, 5 1/2 inches, the 220-pound Koukounas is the tallest player on the team. Everything about him says tight end and athlete.

“He’s a good one,” Shay said. “Tight end-wise, he has the prototypical size. He’s got the intelligence to do it. He’s fast enough. He’s athletic enough.”

Koukounas, who will also play inside linebacker, started every game on both sides of the ball last season. Big things are expected from him. “He’s definitely going to be one of the star players this year,” said Mearkle.

Like Koukounas, Mearkle is in his second year on the team, but Mearkle’s junior season was cut short. He suffered a concussion in the fourth game against Bellport and was out the rest of the year. Now, he said, he is fully recovered.

“It was nice to be back,” he said after the morning practice under the blazing sun.

A healthy Mearkle, who also plays defensive end, can make a difference, too. “He’s physical,” Koukounas said. “He’s not scared to hit anybody. He’s got a strong character.”

A brutal mix of inexperience, lack of depth and injuries hit Riverhead hard last year and the team went 1-7, finishing 12th among 13 teams in Suffolk County Division II.

“It’s not a place we wanted to be, but we had issues and they showed,” Shay said. “The nice thing was that we had great kids, so even though we were losing games, it was still fun to practice because they were great kids. They wanted to be there. We just have to get the talent level up a little bit and utilize those people a little better.”

This year the Blue Waves are seeded 11th out of 12 teams in the division, which means they will play a more forgiving schedule.

Riverhead has more players to work with, too. The results of a recruiting drive have shown. Shay said 79 players have come out for the varsity and junior varsity teams, a big jump of almost 30 more than last year. Among them is junior quarterback Christian Pace, who didn’t play last fall, opting to focus on basketball instead. “Had he played last year, he probably could have started for us at quarterback,” said Shay.

The question of whether Riverhead will be better this season isn’t a question for Mearkle.

“Oh, we will be better, no doubt about it,” he said.

Shay said last year’s younger players learned what to do and what not to do at the varsity level. Now, he said, a “positive vibe” surrounds the program.

“It’s only Day 1,” he said. “This is a work in progress. There’s optimism and there’s a lot of excitement.”

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Photo caption: Riverhead senior Ben Mearkle brings multiple skills to the H-back position. (Credit: Bob Liepa)