Football: Blue Waves go from beating victims to victors

No one likes to lose or get beaten badly, but it’s not the worst thing in the world.

That was the message Riverhead High School football coach Leif Shay delivered to his players following their 35-point loss to Centereach last week.

“Beatings are good sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes when you get beat up, you learn to give a little back.”

And while Riverhead’s 12-7 home-opening win over Smithtown East on Saturday wasn’t exactly a beating, the Blue Waves were more like the hammer than the nail.

Cristian Pace, playing in his first varsity home game, threw two touchdown passes and Patrick Pettit made a game-clinching interception at Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field. Just like that, Riverhead is 2-1 in Suffolk County Division II, having already doubled its win total from last year.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky Saturday, and certainly no dark clouds hanging over the Blue Waves.

“Nobody really likes losing,” said Pace, who was efficient, completing 9 of 13 passes for 153 yards. “We didn’t want to get that feeling again.”

But the Blue Waves evidently learned something since that loss to Centereach. For one thing, they learned the value of getting back to work.

Asked what he saw in practice leading up to Saturday’s game, Shay said: “I saw a determined group of young men that understood we didn’t put our best foot forward. We made a lot of mental errors and they were determined to come back home and play a good game. I give our guys credit. We’re fighters.”

Riverhead showed that fight in refusing to wilt in the 80-degree heat after Dean Shaffer leaped across the goal line for a 4-yard score for Smithtown East (1-2). Ali Abdul-Rassoul’s extra point trimmed Riverhead’s lead to 12-7 with 1 minute, 10 seconds left in the third quarter.

Riverhead’s first three possessions of the fourth quarter ended on punts before Pettit picked off a pass with 2:26 to go. A first down and a knee later, and the Blue Waves were winners.

“This week we were really focused,” said Konstantinos Koukounas, who was wide open on his 48-yard TD catch (his first of the season) on Riverhead’s second play from scrimmage. “We weren’t going to let anything get in our way.”

The second Riverhead TD came at the end of an 11-play, 73-yard drive to open the third quarter. Pace darted a 16-yard pass to Thomas Powers. It was Pace’s fifth TD pass in three games.

“The passing game’s coming along,” Shay said. “The problem is we got to be able to run the ball a little more effectively. We’re working on our interior line. We got some young kids in there, some first-year players.”

Riverhead managed only 56 rushing yards from 31 carries.

But Riverhead’s defense pressured Smithtown East quarterback Kevin Melore (13-for-23, 113 yards), sacking him five times (twice each by Tyjon Hawkins and Darnell Chandler).

Riverhead’s Lawrence Bishop (seven tackles) said the Blue Waves were more physical than they were a week ago. “We all had each other’s backs,” he said. “We kept each other up. We tried not to stay down. We just continued to move forward.”

Saturday represented a step forward for the Blue Waves.

“They were shell-shocked [after the loss to Centereach], and I think that we had to explain to them that it’s OK to take a beating and learn that that’s part of growing, and to their credit, they took that lesson to heart,” Shay said. “Today we learned to grow up and give a little back. I told the kids all week long, the world doesn’t end with beatings. The world ends when you’re dead — and we ain’t dead yet.”

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Photo caption: Riverhead quarterback Cristian Pace congratulates his teammates, including Darnell Chandler (88) and Bean Mearkle (47), following their home-opening victory over Smithtown East. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)