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Football: QB’s return gives Riverhead shot in arm

Sometimes someone has to walk away from something to fully appreciate how much he loves it. That was the case with Christian Pace when he turned his back on football for one season.

Pace had been the starting quarterback for the Riverhead junior varsity team his freshman year. The following year, a couple of days before the start of two-a-day practices, he made a last-minute decision not to go out for the football team and instead focus on training for basketball.

“I missed it so much,” said Pace, who figures he watched all but three of Riverhead’s games that year. “It was the first year I didn’t play since I was 7. After like the second game, I knew I was going to play next year. It was tough … I missed being on the field, being in a uniform.”

Pace’s return to the football field for his junior season was unquestioned, as is his status on the varsity team. Despite his one-year sabbatical, the 5-foot-10, 160-pounder is the Blue Waves’ first-string QB.

“He’s been great,” coach Leif Shay said last week. “He’s been one of the shining spots of the camp so far.”

A point guard for Riverhead’s basketball team, Pace has been described by his coach as an intelligent football player with an accurate arm.

“He decided he wanted to come back to us and it’s definitely a shot in the arm for us,” Shay said. “He probably would have been our starter last year. He has better touch than you think he does when you watch him. He’s very intelligent and he’s more athletic than you think he is. He’s not going to throw the deep ball 50 yards down the field, but he can throw [any pass that] a good high school quarterback … would need to throw.”

Pace is also seen as a dual threat. He can tuck the ball under his arm and make a run for it as well as heave a pass to a receiver.

Aidan Jordan, a senior middle linebacker/center, was a teammate of Pace’s on the JV team two years ago. “He was a good leader, definitely helped the team out,” Jordan said. “He got the team focused, made sure the offensive line was together. When the pocket collapses, he’s able to escape to the outside.”

The other quarterbacks Riverhead has in training camp are last year’s JV quarterback, sophomore David Squires; senior Jason Davis, who was the varsity backup last year; and freshman C.J. Door, who Shay said has a great arm.

Pace said going back to his days in the Riverhead Police Athletic League and middle school, he has always been a quarterback except for one year when he tried playing running back. But QB is his natural position.

“I just want to be a leader to the team, do whatever I can until I get us the win,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”

Pace turned out for spring workouts, but he said it wasn’t until the team’s second mini-camp in July when he put on a helmet and shoulder pads that he truly felt like he was back in football.

Pace said it all came back to him quickly. Compared to two years ago, he said, he has a stronger arm and is a smarter player.

“I feel good,” he said. “I’m getting the timing with the receivers, which is the biggest thing.”

How much does it hurt Pace having not played last fall?

“Obviously, you’d like your quarterback to have as much experience as possible,” Shay said. “It definitely delays his development, but he’s athletic enough where I think he’s going to overcome a lot of those things.”

Does Pace have any regrets about sitting out his sophomore season?

“I don’t know about regrets,” he said. “Everything happens for a reason.”

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Photo caption: Christian Pace, a junior who sat out last season, is Riverhead’s first-string quarterback. (Credit: Bob Liepa)