A line is drawn in the sand, separating winning football teams from losing ones. That line is the offensive line.
It’s the offensive line that largely determines whether a team will be able to move the ball consistently and put points on the scoreboard. Riverhead received a reminder of that last season, working with a new, raw and young offensive line that took its lumps, starting some freshmen. Typically, seniors and juniors have a physical advantage over freshmen.
“To be real, we did terrible,” sophomore tight end Deontae Sykes said. “We could have done better. It’s just the guys weren’t strong enough.”
The Blue Waves will still have a young offensive line this coming season, albeit perhaps a tad more seasoned and stronger from offseason training, but young is young.
“Luckily we started a lot of young kids who were bringing a little bit of experience back, but they’re still young,” coach Leif Shay said after the team’s first practice Monday morning. “If you’re a sophomore playing varsity, I guess it’s better than being a freshman playing varsity. It’s still a young kid.”
There’s no way around that.
As if that wasn’t tough enough, here’s another reality: because of its growing student population, Riverhead has been bumped up from Division II (where it went 2-6 and finished 12th among 14 teams last year) to Division I. That will be a new experience. Riverhead has never played in Division I before, according to Newsday’s Andy Slawson.
Shay said the biggest difference between Divisions I and II is the physical strength of the linemen. It stands to reason that Division I players are more likely to be bigger, faster and stronger.
“There’s not a lot of weak links when you have schools that big,” Shay said. “It’s going to be a challenge.”
Of course, how the offensive line fares will go a long way toward determining how well Riverhead will do.
“If you can’t block, you’re not really going to get anywhere,” said James Foster, a sophomore center who was a freshman starter on the O-line last year along with right tackle Lamarion Hopkins.
No one understands that better than Shay, a former offensive lineman for Hofstra University. “It all starts there,” he said. “If you have a great line, the skill guys are going to be better. If you have great skill guys, they can’t get better if you don’t have an O-line.”
What was Shay’s assessment of the O-line’s performance in 2018?
“We struggled last year,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it, we struggled last year.”
Shay worked with his linemen under the blazing sun Monday, the first steps in a long journey. Just what the offensive line will look like when the Blue Waves open the season Sept. 14 at Central Islip is anybody’s guess.
“It’s Day 1, you know,” Shay said. “The dust is going to settle after this week and we’ll know who the starting five are, but right now it’s up in the air.”
Among those in consideration for starting jobs are senior tight end Steven McDonald, who missed most of last season with knee and shoulder injuries, and junior guard Jack Qualey.
The Blue Waves have put up a brave face about their new football life in Division I. “It’s not going to be a real challenge if we’re ready and strong and disciplined,” Sykes said, “but if we’re not strong and disciplined, it’s going to be very tough to win games.”
Sophomore kicker/punter R.J. Kocan said he has noticed a change from last year. “There’s a lot more focus and intensity,” he said. As for playing in Division I, he said: “It’s a challenge, but I think we’re ready for it. We want to win. We have a winning team.”
Of course, the offensive line will ultimately have an awful lot to say about that.
Photo caption: Senior tight end Steven McDonald, who missed most of last season with injuries, works on his technique along with other linemen during Riverhead’s first practice. (Credit: Bob Liepa)