The players on the court spanned a generation. Riverhead graduates, some from 15 to 20 years ago, raced across the high school basketball court during the annual alumni game in late December.
Bill Hedges looked on alongside fellow track and field coach Sal Loverde as their team began practice.
One by one, the former students took a break to walk over and say hello to the coaches.
Mr. Hedges said to his fellow coach: “Sal, watch; I’m going to know all their names,” Mr. Loverde recalled. “It was important to him to remember. He creates that lasting relationship.”
Over a career that spans 40 years, Mr. Hedges has helped influence countless students in his role as teacher and coach. Since he’s taught in the Riverhead school district since September 1990, and is currently a physical education teacher at Riley Avenue Elementary School. He’s taught just about everywhere, from the middle school to the high school — he was even a part-time athletic director years ago — and has been a staple of the Riverhead football program as a top assistant under coach Leif Shay while also coaching in the boys and girls track and field teams in winter and spring.
For his dedication, commitment and unwavering support for students both on and off the field, the News-Review selected Bill Hedges as its 2017 Sportsperson of the Year.
When Mr. Hedges preaches to students about the importance of fitness, it’s not just words from an old-timer. At 62, he brings an energy to the field each day that can be difficult for even the much younger students to match. He’s committed to a fitness regimen of weight training and cardio that can inspire anyone who watches him.
“He has a confident, humble way about him that is contagious,” Mr. Loverde said. “That energy level? Look at him. He’s 62 and he makes Jack LaLanne look like he was out of shape.”
Mr. Shay has coached with Mr. Hedges since he took over the program more than two decades ago. He remembered how Mr. Hedges began hanging around practices when he first started, hoping to be involved with the team. He would go on to become one of Mr. Shay’s most trusted assistants, helping to lead the Blue Waves’ special teams and coaching linebackers and running backs, among other duties.
“He runs circles around people half his age,” Mr. Shay said. “He brings that energy and that love and passion to the kids, and the kids feed off that.”
Mr. Hedges’ wife, Jeanne, said she doesn’t see any end in sight for his coaching career. While he hopes to retire from teaching at age 65, his plans to keep on coaching. “He loves what he does,” she said. His biggest love is football, she added, but he’s also enjoyed working with the track and field athletes.
“I don’t think he’s ever going to stop coaching,” Mr. Shay said.
As track and field coach, he serves as the boys assistant during the winter season, where he coaches primarily weight events like discus and shot put. He’s also an assistant during the spring season and works with both boys and girls in the weight events. Mr. Loverde said Mr. Hedges is so dedicated, he’ll travel to the meets for both boys and girls.
“His overall dedication and commitment is second to none,” he said. “As an assistant coach, he really behaves at a level of a head coach.”
Cody Smith, a 2014 Riverhead graduate who was the quarterback of the 2013 county championship team, said Mr. Hedges was an important influence on him beyond football.
“You could always lean on Coach Hedges,” Mr. Smith said. “You can always talk to him and he can help you out and point you in that right direction.”
Mr. Smith has gotten to know Mr. Hedges on a different level now that he’s been volunteering as a quarterback coach with the Blue Waves for the past two seasons. Mr. Smith said there’s a new level of respect stepping on the field through the eyes of a coach.
Mr. Shay recalled that, during meetings, Mr. Hedges would always preach the importance of practicing punt returns. That was never bigger than in 2013, when then-senior Ryan Hubbard broke a 14-14 tie in the county championship game against East Islip by returning a punt 84 yards for the game-winning score.
“For [Hedges], it was the epitome of all his work,” Mr. Shay said.
Photo caption: Riverhead assistant coach Bill Hedges on the sideline of a football game this past fall. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)