For Riverhead High School’s appropriately named quarterback, the issue now isn’t keeping the pace so much as setting the pace.
Things have changed for Cristian Pace. He’s a senior now, after all, and that makes a difference.
“Just got to be a leader, show everybody the right way to do everything,” he said following Thursday morning’s practice.
Since becoming Riverhead’s starting quarterback last season — after taking a year off from football — most of what Pace has done has been the right way. He was right more often than he was wrong last year, earning selection as an all-division first team player.
Riverhead coach Leif Shay raved about the way Pace performed, helping the Blue Waves improve from 1-7 in 2016 to 3-7 last year, finishing one place in the standings away from a playoff spot.
“Last season he was unbelievable for us,” Shay said. “He’s such a gamer. He makes throws that you don’t think he could make. He’s got a really uncanny ability to find the open guy. He lets the receivers make plays.”
“He’s an awesome kid,” the coach continued. “He’s a great quarterback. He listens. He’s smart. He offers intelligent questions. He offers intelligent insights sometimes. He sees things that we don’t.”
Riverhead is looking at eight quarterbacks in training camp. Shay said he would ideally like to have three quarterbacks on the varsity team — a solid starter, a backup and an emergency guy.
The solid starter, of course, would be Pace, who has a lock on the position. The leading candidate for the backup job appears to be junior David Squires, who played for the junior varsity team last year.
Through three and half days of practice, Shay has already liked what he has seen from Pace.
“If it’s possible, he’s actually more accurate this year than he was last year,” Shay said. “Every throw’s on the money.”
Pace played in all eight of Riverhead’s games last year, completing 90 of 152 passes for 1,212 yards and 15 touchdowns. He had five interceptions. And Pace could run with the ball when he had to, picking up 260 yards and two touchdowns from 51 rushing attempts.
Pace, who said he gained a greater appreciation for football as a result of his year away from the sport, has spent these opening days getting his timing down with receivers. He said his job is to keep the Riverhead offense on the field as much as possible.
What’s the most valuable thing Pace learned from last season?
“Learn from mistakes and definitely don’t play afraid [of making] mistakes,” he said. “Just play loose and just have fun.”
“I think I’m definitely more confident as a player,” he added. “I got a lot of confidence in my teammates, which is a big thing. Definitely, the year of experience is going to [allow] me to read defenses better and stuff like that.”
Pace spoke highly of the receivers he had to work with last year, including Darnell Chandler and Tommy Powers. Those two have moved on, but Riverhead still looks to be in good shape when it comes to the skill positions.
“I like the new group a lot,” Pace said. “I think we got a lot of kids that want to get out on the field. Everybody’s ready to go. Everybody pushes themselves and everybody’s looking to get better.”
Pace will pass to people like Squires, Isiah Barbieri, Liam Egan (a tight end from Bishop McGann-Mercy) and Dennis Lowe. He will also hand the ball off to running backs like Albert Daniels and Isiah Brunskill.
“He’s got some weapons out there,” said Shay.
The real question, though, is who will be doing the blocking to give Pace time to throw? At this point, what the offensive line will look like is anybody’s guess.
“Right now I couldn’t even tell you who they are,” Shay said. “We’re so thin and so devoid of linemen.”
“The hard deal for us is how much time can we give him? Our line is a work in progress, and that’s really the story of our camp is who is going to be on the offensive line to protect him? We have a good quarterback, but if he has no time to throw, it’s not going to make much difference.”
That makes Pace’s ability to improvise on the run particularly valuable. “When the pocket collapses, I can get out of the pocket and make plays outside of the pocket, throwing on the run and stuff like that,” he said.
Pace is eagerly awaiting the start to the season when Riverhead visits Newfield on Sept. 7.
“I can’t wait. I’m so excited,” he said. “I definitely have high expectations. I just want to keep getting better.”
And setting the pace.
Photo caption: Riverhead quarterback Cristian Pace was an all-division first team player last year, passing for 1,212 yards and 15 touchdowns. (Credit: Bob Liepa)