The biggest surprise in Suffolk County Division I football this season may be named the Riverhead Blue Waves.
Having gone 2-6 in Division II last year, Riverhead was a mystery team this year as it was moved into Division I for the first time. The Blue Waves didn’t know much about Division I, and the rest of Division I didn’t know much about them.
Respect was sparing. The Blue Waves were seeded dead last in the 12-team division.
Look at them now:
With a 21-7 upset of Commack Saturday, Riverhead is 5-2 and perhaps playoff-bound.
Who saw this coming?
The Blue Waves did, of course.
“We proved that we can compete with amazing teams,” Riverhead cornerback/tight end Christian Campbell said after the homecoming game at Commack Stadium. “Everyone looked down at us, chose us for [a] homecoming [opponent], but we showed them that they were wrong.”
Rising to Riverhead’s defense Saturday was, well, its defense. It was a defense that persevered in a stubborn defensive battle. It was a defense that responded to the challenge when a big stop was needed. It was a defense that held Commack (3-4) to 98 first-half yards. It was a defense that bent (allowing Commack to go 5-for-13 on third-down plays) but didn’t break when it really mattered (Commack went 0-for-4 on fourth downs).
And it was a defense that provided the touchdown that sealed the win, courtesy of Campbell.
Clinging to a 14-7 lead late in the fourth quarter, Riverhead had to punt from its own 33-yard line. The thing was, Riverhead’s first-string punter, Isaiah Barbieri, had been ejected from the game along with Commack’s Vincent Rotelli following a brief scuffle with 2 minutes and 51 seconds left in the third quarter. So, sophomore kicker Recep Kocan was sent out to punt for the first time in his career.
“I had my fingers crossed, my toes were crossed, my legs were crossed,” said coach Leif Shay.
Kocan caught the snap and delivered a booming 43-yard punt that pushed Commack back to its 24.
On the next play, Commack quarterback Aidan McCarthy, finding no one open downfield, whizzed a pass to the flat. Campbell read it perfectly, jumped the route and took his first career interception 22 yards to the end zone with 4:08 left in the fourth quarter.
“I knew it was over,” said the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Campbell. (“He’s one of those laid-back, surfer types, so give him a board, he’ll be happy,” said Shay.)
Commack ran off seven plays after that before turning the ball over on downs. Three runs by Albert Daniels completed his 192-yard day, and Riverhead had another big win.
“Another homecoming and another big crowd, and I think our guys get energized for the crowds,” Shay said. “Our defense has been playing great all year. We had the one long play that we gave up [McCarthy’s 42-yard TD pass to a wide open Dennis Morley on a busted coverage], but we know they’re not going to make a living on those types of plays. You got to be able to grind it out against us, and our guys are pretty stout.”
It didn’t hurt that Riverhead had senior middle linebacker Ethan Aube back for the first time since tearing his left meniscus in a preseason scrimmage.
“I was pumped up to play,” said Aube, who made six tackles. “I was so excited. Missing out [six] weeks of the season, it’s really tough, but seeing how we were competing every week, I just wanted to bring the same energy.”
Aube joined a linebacking corps that included Jack Qualey, Aaron Gaines-Bullock and Rayvon Moore (six tackles, one pass defensed). Deontae Sykes led Riverhead with eight tackles.
Commack’s Soel Melero made 10 tackles and recovered a fumble.
Daniels once again came through in a big way, with an 8-yard TD run on Riverhead’s game-opening, 11-play drive and a 75-yard beauty of a TD run, his 17th of the season, in the third quarter. Through seven games, Daniels has 1,378 yards from 193 carries (7.1 yards per carry).
“I know we get a lot of points for this,” Shay said of the victory. “… I think it secured us a playoff spot, but we want to try to not be the eighth seed. We want to try to get a little bit higher.”
Not a bad position for a preseason No. 12 seed.
Photo caption: Riverhead’s Deontae Sykes (88) and Rayvon Moore bring down Commack quarterback Aidan McCarthy. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)