As difficult as Saturday’s high school football game was for Riverhead, it was considerably harder for Alec Kiernan.
And Kiernan played for Centereach, which breezed to victory.
Despite playing with a heavy heart, Kiernan was the unquestioned player of the game. The senior ran for four touchdowns (a career high that gave him five in two games) and 170 yards on 25 carries. He dedicated the 43-8 win to his brother, Daniel, who died on Sunday at the age of 26.
“Everything was for my brother,” said Kiernan, who declined to get into specifics on his brother’s death. “My brother passed this past Sunday and I just played my heart out for him.”
With his parents, Jodi and Daniel, among the homecoming game crowd, Kiernan was a one-man wrecking crew that Riverhead couldn’t stop. The running back’s mix of speed and power made him tough to tackle. He had a pair of 11-yard TD runs in the first quarter before adding scoring runs of 4 and 5 yards in the second half. On defense, the outside linebacker was in on seven tackles, including two sacks.
“He’s a good two-way player,” Centereach coach Adam Barrett said. “He’s getting better every year. He was an All-County player last year. We kind of lean on him a little bit.”
Riverhead coach Leif Shay said Kiernan is a power runner who is deceptively fast. “They block well for him and by the time he gets to the edge, you got a 135-pound corner trying to tackle a 195-pound kid,” he said. “It’s a tall order.”
As was the matchup for Riverhead, coming off a season-opening win over Deer Park. But Deer Park is not Centereach. A playoff team last year, Centereach was seeded fifth in Suffolk County Division II. The Cougars toppled No. 3 Newfield in their opener. Riverhead, seeded 11th in the 12-team division, was the clear underdog.
“We knew it was going to be a tough matchup,” Riverhead wide receiver/defensive end Darnell Chandler said. “I knew they were going to come out with some heat, but I didn’t think they would be this aggressive.”
Riverhead felt the sting right from the opening kickoff, which Devin Demetres returned 85 yards to the end zone for Centereach.
“They came out flying across the field,” Chandler said. “I mean, the first play of the game, the kickoff, they returned it for a touchdown. That’s rough.”
Centereach then capped its first three possessions with TDs, Kiernan’s first two followed by Vincent Liotta’s 21-yard charge through the left side. Demetres then ran in a two-point conversion for a 29-8 lead 2 minutes, 40 seconds into the second quarter.
“They’re a very experienced, senior-laden football team,” Shay said. “We have a lot of kids who are seniors, but they’re not experienced. They’re first-year guys out there. They’re learning, but we were exposed at a couple of places where we have some inexperience. That showed as they beat us up a little up front and our confidence level went down a little bit. That happens sometimes.”
Riverhead found a glimmer of hope when Cristian Pace found Chandler down the left side for a 48-yard TD pass. Pace’s two-point pass to Tyjon Hawkins then cut Centereach’s led to 14-8 with 3:10 left in the first quarter.
For the game, Riverhead managed a mere six yards worth of rushing. The bulk of Riverhead’s offense came through Pace’s passing arm. The junior completed 13 of 23 passes for 191 yards. Thomas Powers caught five of those passes for 73 yards.
“This is a team that we had pegged in the top four that we knew was going to be a tough game,” Shay said. “The competition level raised up quite a bit from where they were last week and it was a little bit of a shock for our kids.”
Hawkins said, “Coach said it was going to be our hardest game that we played this year, but we just got to execute better.”
Riverhead also suffered a loss within a loss. Anthony Marcello, a tight end/free safety, had to be carried off the field after making a tackle on Kiernan early in the second quarter. Shay said Marcello is believed to have a sprained right ankle.
Recent history hasn’t been kind to Riverhead in Centereach. Last year the Blue Waves lost, 33-7, in their final regular-season game as the Cougars booked themselves a playoff berth.
On Saturday, Kiernan paid tribute to his late brother with his outstanding play on the field.
“Definitely leading up to this game it was hard, but my family was there to support me and my team was there to support me,” Kiernan said. “Everyone was supporting me and I just played my heart out for him. This whole season is going to be for my brother.”
Photo caption: Riverhead’s Connor Zaneski, left, and Ben Mearkle close in on Centereach running back Alec Kiernan. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)