Riverhead football is going D-I.
Did someone say kicking and screaming?
One might think the Blue Waves need to be brought up to the top echelon of Suffolk County high school football like they need a busted play, but they really have no say in the matter. Riverhead, a longtime fixture in Division II, will compete in Division I in 2019.
“It’s all based on just numbers,” explained coach Leif Shay, who said Riverhead High School’s steadily rising student population prompted the move. “I don’t think we’ve ever gone Division I in football. We have no control over what it is, we just have to prepare the best we can.”
Riverhead has never played in Division I before, according to Newsday’s Andy Slawson, a Long Island sports historian.
Meanwhile, defending Suffolk Division IV champion Shoreham-Wading River has been tapped as the top seed in that division. Greenport/Southold/Mattituck is seeded 11th among Division IV’s 12 teams.
For Riverhead, though, Division I represents a brave, new world.
“It’s a great unknown,” Shay said. “I don’t know these teams. I haven’t seen these teams. They don’t know us, either.”
Riverhead is coming off a fourth straight losing season. The Blue Waves went 2-6 last year, finishing 12th among 14 teams. Over the past four years, the team went 10-23.
With Riverhead’s population growth, though, Shay said it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where things were headed. He said the divisions were determined in December. If there is a small forgiving aspect to the move, Riverhead was assigned the No. 12 seed in the 12-team division at the seeding meeting in March, and with that comes the easiest schedule — on paper.
“But you know what you can do with that piece of paper,” said Shay, who sees the value of published rankings as lasting no longer than it takes for the ink to dry after they are printed.
Riverhead will see teams it has little history with. The Blue Waves have away games scheduled at Central Islip, Ward Melville, Patchogue-Medford and Commack, with home dates against Brentwood, Sachem North, Bay Shore and Walt Whitman.
“The football field is still a hundred yards long, so you can’t change your preparation,” Shay said. “You have to believe in your system. We can’t be in awe just because we’re playing Division I.”
Shay, who started four freshmen linemen last year, believes the biggest difference his team will notice will be in the line play.
“Our challenge is going to be up front with the linemen, dealing with the strength they haven’t seen before,” he said.
He added: “It’s a new challenge, but that’s what life’s all about. It’s going to be a learning curve, but if anybody’s ready for it, we can do it.”
Preseason practices begin Aug. 19. Riverhead’s first game will be Sept. 14 at Central Islip. SWR will open its season Sept. 6 at home against Bayport-Blue Point. That night Greenport will kick off its campaign against visiting Southampton/Bridgehampton/Pierson.
SWR received the No. 1 seed in Division IV, a token of respect it earned by winning a fourth straight county championship and posting a 10-2 record.
Aden Smith, who will enter his second season as SWR’s head coach, said, “My concern is how we finish, not how we were ranked.”
Does such a high seeding bring added pressure?
“It doesn’t add more pressure,” Smith said. “I think the expectation to win has already been established through our history of success. I think the players put pressure on themselves because they expect to win.”
With that top seed comes the toughest possible schedule, pitting SWR against the other top nine seeds. Among the Wildcats’ opponents will be No. 2 Mount Sinai, No. 3 Elwood/John Glenn, No. 4 Port Jefferson and No. 5 Babylon.
SWR returns Xavier Arline, its All-Long Island second team quarterback, but lost three starting linemen, including All-County players Joe Puckey and Liam Mahoney, as well as All-Division picks DJ Brown and Dominic Visintin.
“You can’t replace that type of leadership,” Smith said. “Seniors, they know what it takes.”
He added, “We have a lot of [positions] to fill in a short amount of time, but we have some returning players, some good returning players, who have been a part of the program for a long time.”
Photo caption: The Riverhead Blue Waves, charging onto the field for their season opener last year, will play Division I football for the first time this coming season. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister, file)