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Football: Riverhead fights but falters at Ward Melville

What the 2019 high school football season had in store for Riverhead was a curious mystery of sorts. The Blue Waves had never played in Suffolk County Division I before, so in making the jump from Division II, they were plunging into the unknown.

Now, with most of the regular season behind them, the Blue Waves, seeded last in the 12-team division, have demonstrated that they can compete with Division I teams and win.

“Everyone’s kind of looking down on us like, oh, we were seeded last [in] preseason, but we kind of took that and made it like a chip on our shoulder and we just went out there and tried to fight,” said senior quarterback David Squires.

Riverhead put up a heck of a fight Friday night in its biggest test of the season — on paper at least — against the highest-seeded team on its schedule, No. 4 Ward Melville. The hard running of bruising senior Michael Fiore enabled Ward Melville to hold onto a 21-14 victory in East Setauket. The two teams, both 3-2, had never played each other before, according to records kept by Newsday’s Andy Slawson.

“I thought our kids played really, really well,” Riverhead coach Leif Shay said. “We came out against one of the higher seeded teams in the division and we had a chance to win the game. We were a couple of dropped passes away. I’m proud of our guys. It was a great effort.”

Ward Melville graduated nine starters on both sides of the ball from its 9-2 team of last year, but the Patriots returned two major pieces in quarterback Justice Spencer and Fiore.

Fiore showed his value. His 14-yard burst through the middle for a touchdown that snapped a 14-14 tie with 1 minute left in the third quarter was a display of strength and sheer determination.

Following the ensuing kickoff, Riverhead marched from its own 20-yard line to the Ward Melville 7. That’s where the Patriots took possession after Dan Cassera brought down Squires a yard shy of a first down.

Ward Melville then ran out the final 8:33 by picking up four first downs. The 5-10, 180-pound Fiore ran the ball nine times during that game-ending, 14-play series that concluded with Spencer taking two knees to wrap up the win. Fiore picked up 53 of his 174 rushing yards during that final clock-eating drive.

“We came up short, but we tried to do everything we could,” said Squires, who was involved in both Riverhead TDs, a 9-yard run by himself and a 9-yard pass to Isaiah Barbieri, who muscled his way across the goal line. “We all tried our hardest. They probably have one of the best running backs. He’s crazy. But we went out there and we did everything we could. We came up a yard short.”

Riverhead has quite a running back, too, in Albert Daniels. The senior continued his outstanding season, gaining 167 yards on 21 carries. For the season, he has 956 rushing yards and 12 TDs from 118 carries (8.1 yards per carry). Among his runs Friday were gains of 26, 28 and 22 yards.

“He’s just a phenomenal football player,” Shay said. “He does so much for us. We haven’t had a guy like that since Miguel Maysonet was romping the sidelines, so it’s nice to have a stud athlete back there doing those things.”

Ward Melville opened the game with a 12-play series, culminating in a fantastic connection when Spencer (10 of 19, 74 yards) drilled a 13-yard pass that the diving Jack Gillen snagged in the end zone.

Later in the first half, Spencer went through a stretch of six straight incompletions, but the Patriots did not abandon their passing game. On a fourth-down play, Steven Germain took a handoff from Spencer, rolled to his left and found Travis Moehringer for an 11-yard TD pass with 14.8 seconds left in the second quarter.

The first half was a busy one for the Riverhead defense. Ward Melville ran 37 offensive plays in the half while Riverhead had 15. For the game, Riverhead’s Tyreek Earl Parker (two sacks) and Lamarion Hopkins made eight tackles each.

“We came with our ‘A’ game,” Sykes said. “We came prepared.”

It was a well-played game, with neither side committing a turnover.

“I’m just trying to move on from this because it’s kind of frustrating,” Squires said. “It’s disappointing because we prepared so hard for this and we wanted this one so badly, but we just came up short at the end.”

Riverhead started the day in eighth place, two spots below Ward Melville.

The result notwithstanding, Riverhead can derive confidence from its performance.

“Riverhead football is back,” Shay said. “We’re competitive. We’re looking forward to trying to make the playoffs now.”

Photo caption: Riverhead running back Albert Daniels leaves Ward Melville’s Michael Fiore in his wake by picking up some of his 167 yards Friday night. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

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