Some kinks and rust were to be expected. After all, it had been 672 days since the last time Riverhead played a game that counted, way back in November 2019.
Only a handful of familiar faces remained from that last game, a playoff loss at Longwood. A lost season that followed in 2020, plus the departure of several key contributors to other schools, meant the 2021 Riverhead football team entered this year with a giant question mark hanging overhead.
Numbers were down, and the preseason seeding pitted Riverhead last in the 12-team Division I.
What exactly would the Blue Waves look like?
On Friday evening, the Blue Waves provided the first answer. After a sluggish start in the season opener at Patchogue-Medford High School, the Blue Waves rallied from an early hole for touchdowns on three consecutive possessions in the second and third quarters and held off the Raiders late for a 20-13 victory.
“You could feel the rush, you could feel the energy on the field,” said quarterback Justin Mason. “Everybody put in a lot of work. We fell behind, we didn’t have a [spring] season and we’re behind schedule. Everybody picked it up, practiced hard and we came out and we did our jobs.”
In many ways, it was a familiar style of football that has made Riverhead a consistent contender in Suffolk County. The Blue Waves have had a tradition of workhorse running backs behind stout offensive lines. And it was the same formula Friday as junior Amari Funn carried a heavy load with 30 carries for 171 rushing yards.
His 33-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter put Riverhead ahead 20-7 and proved to be the deciding score.
“It feels good, having been two years since I ran the ball like that,” Funn said. “It feels good to be back on the football field.”
Funn got better as the game wore on, running frequently to the left side behind linemen Lamarion Hopkins and James Foster. Hopkins and Foster are two returning players who started on the offensive line as sophomores, helping set up holes for standout running back Albert Daniels back in 2019.
Now it’s Funn’s turn to shine behind them.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know we run left and those two guys are on the left side,” Riverhead coach Leif Shay said.
Mason said Funn brings versatility to his running game.
“Power runner, outside, he can do it all,” he said. “I’m really proud of him.”
It took until the fourth Blue Waves’ possession for the offense to kick into gear. On their first drives, the offense was going backward more so than forward. The Raiders converted their first possession into a touchdown to take a quick 7-0 lead and the Blue Waves appeared to be in trouble.
A couple turnovers helped swing momentum to Riverhead. Raiders running back Casey Taylor lost the ball on a third-down run for Pat-Med late in the opening quarter, was injured on the play and did not return, a tough blow for the Raiders’ offense, which became heavily dependent on the passing game. While the Blue Waves couldn’t convert on the next possession, they quickly got the ball back again on an interception. Mason scored for Riverhead on a 5-yard run for the first score of the season.
Mason was making his first start as a varsity quarterback, a basically brand new position for him.
On junior varsity as a sophomore in 2019, Mason played wide receiver. Now as a senior, Mason said the team needed a quarterback so he was willing to step up.
“A lot of people transferred to different schools because we didn’t have sports and most of those people didn’t come back,” he said. “So we needed a QB.”
Mason, who also plays baseball, said there’s been a learning curve to the new position, but he’s confident he can get the job done.
“He’s an athletic kid,” Shay said. “His biggest asset is he’s smart and coachable. You tell him something once and he’s got it.”
Riverhead grabbed the lead on a 12-yard touchdown run with 1:21 left in the second quarter by Dylan Magee. Mason converted a 2-point conversion to put the Blue Waves ahead 14-7.
The Blue Waves had chances to put the Raiders away, but the offense stalled in the fourth quarter. The Raiders got possession with 3:15 left and scored just over a minute later to cut the deficit to seven. Riverhead had to punt the ball back to the Raiders with over a minute remaining, and the defense held strong, forcing an incompletion on a fourth down play to seal the win.
The Blue Waves will return home to Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field next Saturday for their home opener against Ward Melville. Kickoff is 1:30 p.m.