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Football: After year off, Blue Waves are back

Can the biggest surprise of Suffolk County Division I football in 2019 be the division’s biggest surprise in 2021?

That’s the question Riverhead fans are interested in.

In 2019, Riverhead’s first ever season in Division I, the Blue Waves, seeded last among 12 teams, stunned some by going 6-3, losing to Longwood in a playoff game.

“It put Riverhead on the map and showed everyone that Riverhead is a good football team,” said Lamarion Hopkins, a senior defensive tackle/right guard.

Because of budget cutbacks, Riverhead didn’t play football this past school year. Once again, the Blue Waves are ranked 12th in 12-team Division I. Do they have another surprise or two in them?

That remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure — the Blue Waves were happy to be back on the field again Monday morning for their first practice since 2019.

“It feels great to be back doing what you love to do, the passion that we have for it,” Hopkins’ twin brother, H-back/linebacker Lamaine Hopkins, said. “The spirit is here.”

Does the one-year absence make one appreciate football more?

“Yeah,” Lamarion Hopkins said, “it makes me appreciate it a lot because you never know when it can get swiped from under you like that because football just got taken away from us with, you know, the whole budget thing and then COVID made it even worse, so now we have a chance.”

Leif Shay, 52, Riverhead’s longest-serving and winningest coach (118-80 record over 24 years), said last year was the first he wasn’t actively involved in football since before he started playing in middle school. “It’s been a long time,” acknowledged Shay, who said he got the opportunity this past spring to watch his son, Cooper, play for Hampton Bays.

Twin brothers Lamaine Hopkins, left, and Lamarion Hopkins are expected to be a big part of Riverhead’s game plan this season. (Credit: Bob Liepa)

The impact of Riverhead sitting out last season is “huge,” said Shay. “It’s huge for two reasons  — number one, you lost a lot of kids. Number two, you’re playing teams that played last spring, so they had spring football. They had spring ball and they’re ready to rock and roll.”

Lamarion Hopkins said, “It could be a little disadvantage, but the good overpowers the bad disadvantage because now we have something to prove, and it’s only going to make us go stronger to prove why Riverhead should be playing in the playoffs.”

Sixty-one players reported to practice Monday morning. That’s a light turnout. Shay said Riverhead typically has over 100 candidates.

But the most telling number was this: two. As in the number of remaining varsity players from the 2019 season — offensive tackle/defensive tackle James Foster and Lamarion Hopkins. Eleven of the players were on the junior varsity team two years ago.

Coach Leif Shay keeps an eye on things behind the line of scrimmage. (Credit: Bob Liepa)

Lamarion Hopkins was a two-way starter as a sophomore. Impressive. “He’s a tough kid, a smart kid,” Shay said. “He’s got a great nose for the ball, great football acumen.”

Shay sees Lamaine Hopkins as a starter and an impact player because of his versatility. “Lamaine went into COVID as a boy, he came out of COVID as a man, so he really physically grew,” the coach said. “He’s a lot stronger right now. We’re looking for big things from him.”

Riverhead has a week of two-a-day practices as it prepares for its season-opening game Sept. 10 at Patchogue-Medford.

“There’s a lot of pride and tradition that surround the Riverhead football program,” Shay said. “We’re going to put our best foot forward no matter what division we play in.”

What does Lamarion Hopkins want to get out of the coming season?

He said, “I want to show everyone what I’m capable of, and that Riverhead is back, and we’ll be back like we never left.”