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Football: Secondary is Riverhead’s primary problem

It wasn’t a case of insult added to injury so much as injury contributing to insult.

The injury came when Riverhead’s David Squires left the ground in an attempt to catch a pass. Moving gingerly, the junior was helped off Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field in Riverhead.

Only 6 minutes and 44 seconds had elapsed in the Suffolk County Division II football game, and Riverhead was without its defensive secondary leader. A secondary that has been having problems all season had just suffered a gut punch.

The secondary’s glaring shortcomings were underlined Saturday. Smithtown East receivers were open — wide open — time and again as Bulls quarterback Kevin Melore had a field day, throwing three touchdown passes and running for another. East finished off its first three possessions of the second half with TDs to beat the Blue Waves, 35-19, in their home opener.

At halftime, word had reached the press box that Squires, who plays wide receiver and defensive back, had broken a fibula. He was soon seen with crutches, sitting on the Riverhead bench.

Obviously, his loss was felt.

“He was the leader of our defensive secondary and with him out, we just had lapses because he was the guy who told everybody where to go,” coach Leif Shay said. “It’s just, we need brains more than we need anything else back there.”

“They’ve been struggling all year,” he continued. “With David out there, at least I got guys lined up properly, I got guys in the right coverages. Today you saw guys blowing coverages because they didn’t really know how to line up.”

On a sun-splashed, windy, blue-sky day, it was lights out for Riverhead as Melore (11-for-15 passing) burned them for 276 yards through the air and TD tosses to Joe Saccone, Nicholas Lardaro (three catches, 90 yards) and James Peters.

“We broke down on the coverage,” Riverhead middle linebacker/running back Derrick Parker said. “We got to work on that.”

Additionally, 115 rushing yards, including a 5-yard TD run, by Dean Shaffer helped East (2-1) to 415 yards of offense.

Riverhead (1-2) trimmed East’s lead to 14-7 thanks to Isaiah Barbieri’s good hands. Barbieri, tangling with defensive back Devin Butbul, somehow managed to come down with a 23-yard TD pass from Cristian Pace 3:45 into the third quarter.

But then East blew the game open.

“Our guys were physically outmatched,” Shay said. “You know, it’s hard going into a game when you know you’re going to be physically outmatched. There’s only so many schemes you can do when the other team’s stronger.”

An 18-yard TD run by Riverhead’s Albert Daniels (21 carries, 111 yards) and a 4-yard TD pass that Pace zipped to Anthony Marcello on the final play of the game made the score more respectable.

Daniels intercepted Melore’s final pass of the day, setting up Marcello’s last-second score.

Isaiah Brunskill returned two third-quarter kickoffs to the end zone, distances of 89 and 91 yards, but they were both called back because of blocking penalties.

“They were legitimate calls,” Shay said. “I’m not going to argue that.”

Liam Egan made a game-high nine tackles for Riverhead.

After the game, Shay pointed out that Riverhead starts three freshmen on the offensive and defensive lines. For many of his players, this amounts to on-the-job training.

“We’re starting a lot of freshmen on the team this year,” he said. “We’ll probably bring up a JV kid and just do the best we can with what we got. Right now our upperclassmen aren’t giving it to us, so we’re going with younger kids and we’ll just build for the future.”

On the plus side, Shay said he liked what he saw in the receiving department from Marcello (four catches, 67 yards) and Barbieri (three catches, 51 yards).

Parker didn’t sound discouraged. He said, “We just got to get better, man, get back on that practice field and get ready for Deer Park” in next Saturday’s homecoming game.

Daniels, who has 336 yards from 48 carries this season (7.0 yards per carry), said: “We got to keep fighting and focus more in practice. We’re a really good team. We got a lot of young guys coming up.”

Shay tried to put things in perspective.

“This isn’t going to be a Long Island championship team, but it will play its best game the last game of the year,” he said. “This is a young team. People are going to need to be patient with this team because they’re going to make mistakes. When you start freshmen out there, they’re going to make mistakes. You got to live with it, but those guys are going to be good in four years.”

As for now, fixing the secondary is of primary importance.

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Photo caption: Riverhead receiver Isaiah Barbieri after making a 23-yard TD reception 3:45 into the third quarter. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)