The smiles and laughs were as plentiful as the tennis balls on the Riverhead High School courts during Tuesday’s practice. Some players were even dancing and singing.
“That’s the way it is every day,” senior Gina Bassemir said. “We just enjoy being out there.”
Oh, there was something different with this picture. Something was missing.
“Usually I bring a speaker and we all just jam out to music,” said senior Leah Zenk.
It was a joyous scene, all the same, and for good reason. The Blue Waves were enjoying their first full day as Suffolk County League VIII champions, a title they share with Southold/Greenport.
Riverhead and Southold have been running neck and neck with each other for first place throughout the season, so Monday’s results didn’t come as a surprise. Both teams took care of business in their final regular-season matches, both 5-2 scores, with Riverhead (11-1, 9-1) beating Ross and Southold (9-4, 9-1) downing Mattituck.
That left them as co-league champions, facing a play-in match against each other Thursday in Southold. The winner advances to the Suffolk County Team Tournament.
This is all heady stuff for Riverhead. The only other league championship banner the team has hanging in its gym is for 1991, said first-year coach Vic Guadagnino. That’s 10 years before the oldest team members were born.
This was hardly something the Blue Waves expected during the preseason. “It’s really exciting for all of us, I think,” Bassemir said. “It’s just like because it’s the first time in so long, it’s kind of overwhelming.
“We didn’t even think about it the past few years. We were wondering who was top of the league, but we never thought that it would be us.”
With an infusion of players from Bishop McGann-Mercy last year, Riverhead showed vast improvement and went 8-4. This year the Blue Waves took things up a notch.
Sophomore Isabella Pagnozzi saw promising signs during tryouts. “I actually saw everyone playing and they were so strong and they played so well,” she said. “Then I knew that we were going to have a good team.”
And then the winning started.
“We don’t have one weak doubles player or a weak singles player,” said junior Joslyn Lessard, who played for two league champion Mercy teams and is one of three former Monarchs on the squad along with Lilly Kneidl and Jill Shackel. “We’re all pretty strong.”
That strength is reflected in Riverhead’s team points won (67) and lost (17). Meghan Carver, one of eight seniors among the 10 lineup players, returned at first singles. Bassemir is 11-1 at second singles, Pagnozzi is 12-0 at third singles and Lessard is 11-1 at fourth singles.
Has this league championship come out of the blue?
“Not really,” Guadagnino said. “They had a decent season last year. We had Meghan coming back in the number one spot and our singles were going to be very strong. It was just a matter of getting doubles teams to win matches and focus, play hard, and they did for the majority of the matches.”
Shackel and Zenk have been paired at first doubles, with Kneidl and Delu Rizzo at second doubles and Jordan Curran and Sofia Salgado forming the third team.
What makes Riverhead a champion team?
“Character,” Guadagnino said. “They are characters, yet they have character, and you need that in a sport where it can go your way one second and the next second it’s in the net and miserable, so you have to have character. You have to persevere.”
Thursday’s play-in match offers some great human interest. Carver’s father, Mike Carver, just happens to be the Southold coach. She has played against his teams eight times over the past four years, but No. 9 will be the biggest yet, with the most at stake.
An interesting tidbit: The two teams beat each other once this season — on the other team’s home courts. Riverhead won, 5-2, on Sept. 10 and Southold was a 4-3 winner on Sept. 25.
“Definitely a weird feeling, honestly,” Meghan Carver said of facing her father’s team with a playoff spot on the line.
Do father and daughter talk about this at home?
“We don’t talk about it much because he doesn’t want to talk about it and I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “It always starts a fight.”
Will they talk tennis at home after the match?
She said, “We might not.”
Photo caption: Riverhead first singles player Meghan Carver will face the Southold/Greenport team coached by her father, Mike Carver, Thursday in a play-in match for the Suffolk County Team Tournament. (Credit: Bob Liepa)