It was a somber group of Riverhead High School football players who marched in double file from Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field to their school to turn in their equipment. They didn’t want their season to end, but that is what happened to the Blue Waves on Saturday.
Needing to win — and get some outside help — in order to sneak into the playoffs, Riverhead was burned by Smithtown West and its elusive quarterback, Kyle Zawadzki. Matt Miller’s 94-yard interception return for a touchdown with 7 minutes, 40 seconds remaining lifted Smithtown West to a 32-28 victory in the Suffolk County Division II game.
On its final two series, Riverhead punted and turned the ball over on downs. Just like that it was season over.
“It’s sad,” said Riverhead defensive end/tight end Tyjon Hawkins, who made 11 tackles, including two sacks. “When we were in the locker room I saw people crying. It’s just like a bad feeling, like this is it. This is all you got. It’s over now.”
Riverhead (3-5) made substantial progress since last year, when it went 1-7, but still fell short of a coveted playoff spot.
“We needed a couple of teams to lose and us to win and we would have been in, but we lost so it’s over,” said wide receiver Tommy Powers, one of Riverhead’s 25 seniors.
The biggest problem for Riverhead was Zawadzki, who ran 29 times for 213 yards (171 in the first half) and two touchdowns. He also went 7-for-10 passing for 58 yards and a TD.
“He’s their money man,” Powers said. “He made everything happen for their team.”
Riverhead’s Cristian Pace (14-for-21, 154 yards, three TDs, two interceptions) threw a pair of TD strikes to Powers (six catches, 109 yards) in the last 6:06 of the third quarter. With Powers kicking the extra points, those scores put Riverhead in front, 28-26. Powers made a heck of catch on the second one. He showed good hands, coming down with the ball in the corner of the end zone with a defender on his back.
After Riverhead’s Darnell Chandler blocked a Matthew Villano punt, the Blue Waves took over on the Smithtown West 33-yard line early in the fourth quarter. They moved to the 13 before Miller stepped in front of a Pace pass and ran it back all the way in the opposite direction for the game-changing score.
“That interception at the end, if we didn’t have that, we would have walked away with a different story, but that happens,” said Riverhead coach Leif Shay.
An interception by Jonathan Gonzalez off a pass deflected by Chandler on the game’s second play from scrimmage set Riverhead up for its first score 2:01 into the game, a 15-yard pass on a fade to Chandler, who had a step on defensive back Chris Crespo.
It wasn’t long before Smithtown West (5-3) replied with a touchdown of its own. Zawadzki zipped a 5-yard pass to Chad Cusimano, who had no one within yards of him.
Before the quarter ended, Pace darted another TD pass to Chandler. Powers’ extra point made it 14-6.
Smithtown West scored the next three TDs — all in the second quarter. Riverhead couldn’t contain Zawadzski, who ran for two of them, winding his way on a 43-yarder and getting good blocking on a 16-yarder. He also passed to Cusimano for two points after his second TD run.
Zawadzki was trying for his third TD when he ran nine yards before fumbling at the Riverhead 1-yard line. But Crespo picked up the ball and brought it over the goal line for a 26-14 Bulls lead.
At halftime, Riverhead had minus-2 yards rushing.
The disappointment aside, Riverhead made strides this season. It has seen player numbers rise and is encouraged by the 8-0 record turned in by its junior varsity team.
“People are excited about Riverhead football again, and for us that was the biggest thing,” Shay said. “We wanted to get back on the map and keep building from there.”
After turning in his equipment, Riverhead linebacker/fullback Carlos Perez reflected on the season that had just ended.
“We put everything on the line today,” he said. “Definitely a must-win game. We played hard. We tried to do everything we had to do. I mean, since Day One I always said we wanted to show everyone what Big Blue was all about and I think we’ve done that.”
Photo caption: Jaheim Woodson (87) and the rest of the Riverhead players charge onto the field for their game against Smithtown West on Saturday. (Credit: Bob Liepa)