Senior David Squires was first to climb atop the monument that displays the Victory Bell outside Pulaski Street School. Fellow seniors Isaiah Barbieri, Steven McDonald and William Berkowsky followed.
Surrounded by a huge group of fellow classmates and Riverhead football supporters, the players paused before ringing. They looked back toward Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field.
Someone was missing.
They needed Albert Daniels.
Clutching a football in his left hand, Daniels — the Blue Waves’ standout running back — arrived a few moments later after completing a television interview. Daniels joined his teammates at the bell and the joyous sound of victory soon rang out as the crowd chanted in unison to 37.
“I’m like, they better not start without me, so I just sprinted over here,” Daniels said.
It was only fitting the Blue Waves waited for Daniels. The senior rushed for four touchdowns in the 37-14 victory against Walt Whitman on homecoming in front of a standing-room only crowd, his latest masterpiece in what has been one of the best individual rushing seasons in the program’s long history.
The win locked the Blue Waves into the No. 6 seed in the playoffs as they avoided a potential drop in power points that could have seen them matched up with undefeated William Floyd. Instead, the Blue Waves (6-2) will travel to face No. 3 Longwood (6-2), likely Friday night.
“I’ve played on this field since I was 6 years old,” Daniels said. “All the greats have rung that bell over the years. To ring it once last time on the home field is beautiful.”
Daniels carried the ball 31 times and gained 194 yards. He scored on runs of 1, 35, 2 and 7.
After taking a one touchdown lead into halftime, the Blue Waves came out firing in the second half with scoring drives on each of their first three possessions, all touchdowns from Daniels.
“That’s a credit to my offensive line and coaches,” Daniels said of the rushing attack. “They do an amazing job game planning and offensive line does a great job blocking.”
Daniels first joined the varsity in Riverhead as a freshman. In those first three years, he never got the chance to experience playoff football.
Three years ago the Blue Waves were 1-7, matching their worst record since 1991. The next two years only added up to five more wins.
Now, with Saturday’s win, the Blue Waves matched their winning total from the past three seasons combined — all while competing in Division I for the first time.
Talk about a turnaround.
“I’m super excited,” Daniels said. “First time in playoffs after three-year drought. It’s a great feeling, especially in Division I.”
The Blue Waves will be vying for their first playoff win since defeating Deer Park in the first round in 2014.
Riverhead coach Leif Shay said heading to the playoffs brings back the spirit that Riverhead football has always been known for.
“The community backs these kids and it’s an exciting time,” he said. “They’ll ring the bell and all those traditions come back to life.”
While Whitman came into the game as a bottom-four team in Division I, the Wildcats were coming off a close game against Longwood. The Wildcats lost that game by three points, so the Blue Waves knew they couldn’t take anything for granted.
And Shay is never particularly excited when his team plays on homecoming, always wary of the potential distractions the players could face in the week leading up to the game.
“Credit to our guys that they came in focused and ready to play,” he said.
The Wildcats actually struck first in the game, scoring through the air on their second possession of the game to take a 7-0 lead. But the Blue Waves answered with a quick four-play drive after starting in Wildcats’ territory. Quarterback Christopher Dorr connected on a 21-yard pass to Christian Campbell to tie the game.
Riverhead’s defense was outstanding the rest of the way as Whitman could get nothing going on the ground. The Wildcats relied on their passing attack with minimal success the rest of the way. The final two points for Riverhead came on a safety.
Riverhead kept Whitman off the scoreboard again until late in the fourth quarter, at which point both teams were playing backups.
“I thought it was a great overall team effort [on defense],” Shay said.
Riverhead took the lead on a 10-play drive capped by Daniels’ first touchdown run from a yard out on fourth down with 6:54 left in the second.
Now it’s onto the playoffs.
“It’s going to be a helluva game,” Daniels said.