Friday night’s playoff opener between Riverhead and Longwood could have been billed as the battle of elite running backs.
On one side, the sixth-seeded Blue Waves featured Albert Daniels, who came into the game with 21 touchdowns and a Suffolk County-leading 1,550 rushing yards, according to Newsday stats.
On the other side, the third-seeded Lions featured Anele Nwanyanwu, a 224-pound bruising back who is a likely candidate for the Hansen Award as the top player in the county.
On a frigid night that felt more like late November when the Long Island championship games are played, it was Nwanyanwu and the Lions who emerged on top.
Nwanyanwu’s touchdown late in the second quarter at Longwood High School was all the Lions would need in a 20-0 victory. The senior carried the ball 27 times and gained 165 yards, single-handedly outgaining the entire Blue Waves offense.
The Blue Waves (6-3) couldn’t generate any openings for Daniels to operate and the senior was limited to a season-low 34 yards on 19 carries.
Longwood (7-2) dominated at the line of scrimmage and its defensive line overwhelmed Riverhead.
“They were more physical then us up front,” Riverhead coach Leif Shay said. “That’s what I was worried about in [Division] I.”
The Lions feature four players on their roster above 300 pounds. That’s a lot of size to contend with.
Senior Chris Alvarado, at 6-1, 245, and junior Kory Stevenson, at 6-1, 303, both caused problems for the Blue Waves.
Riverhead ended the game with just three first downs.
Still, the Blue Waves were hanging around late, thanks to a formidable effort on defense. For as tough as Nwanyanwu was, the Blue Waves made him earn his yards.
Longwood led 7-0 at halftime and opened the third quarter with a 16-play drive that ate up nearly the entire quarter. Junior Fernando Rodriguez capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run to make it a 14-0 game.
Nwanyanwu’s season has been remarkable for Longwood and a bit of an oddity, considering how it started. Nwanyanwu, who’s a standout linebacker on defense, said he had never been a running back until this season. He started the year as a tight end.
In Week 3, the coaches challenged him to take on running back duties. A week earlier, the Lions were shut out against Sachem East in one of their two losses on the season.
“I’m very new, very raw,” Nwanyanwu said. “Each game I get more acquitted to it. It’s new, I like it.”
Shay said he thought Nwanyanwu and Daniels are equal players, but the line play was the difference Friday night.
“He’s tough to bring down,” Shay said of Nwanyanwu.
Nwanyanwu ran with patience and he has the strength to bounce off defenders and a quick burst to elude tacklers.
With the temperature around 34 degrees at kickoff, Nwanyanwu knew he’d be in for a heavy workload as the passing game likely wasn’t going to be a huge factor.
“It was a ground and pound game,” he said. “So I had to get my mind right for the carries.”
It was a defensive battle throughout the first half and the Lions finally gained some momentum after a Riverhead turnover. The Lions recovered a fumble on a passing play to give themselves a short field with 5 minutes left in the second quarter.
On fourth-and-4 from the 8-yard line, Nwanyanwu broke through the left side and found the end zone.
Fourth down conversions were huge for Longwood throughout the game.
The Blue Waves committed three turnovers, putting themselves in a tough position against a strong opponent.
“We hurt ourselves in the first half,” Shay said. “The penalties hurt us in the first half, the fumbles hurt us. We didn’t play well today.”
Longwood added its final score with 3:39 left in the fourth quarter when quarterback Noah Rattmer ran up the middle for 12 yards on a fourth-and-1 play.
The Lions advance to play No. 2 Sachem East next Friday in the semifinals.
The Blue Waves tried what they could to find a spark on offense. Christopher Dorr started at quarterback and Shay switched at points to use senior David Squires, who began the season as the starter. Squires completed one pass to Isaiah Barbieri for 29 yards.
Either way, the Blue Waves couldn’t sustain any drives.
Shay said he reminded his players in the final huddle that they had a great season.
“I told the guys right now you’re upset. Tomorrow you’re going to wake up and realize you had a great season. You went to [Division] I and won six games and nobody thought you were going to win any.”
Riverhead senior Tyreek Earl Parker was taken by ambulance to a local hospital after sustaining an injury early in the fourth quarter. Parker was hit in the head while playing defense and complained of neck pains. He was immediately surrounded by medical personnel on site and an ambulance with the Middle Island Fire Department was already at the game. Shay said he was transported for precautionary reasons. Riverhead fans chanted Parker’s name and the senior gave a thumbs up to the crowd as he was lifted into the ambulance.
Top photo caption: Longwood senior Anele Nwanyanwu eludes Riverhead’s Christian Campbell. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)