Riverhead may have been the ultimate underdogs of Suffolk County high school football.
Consider the evidence: Because of school budget cuts, the Blue Waves didn’t play this past spring season, postponed from the previous fall because of the coronavirus pandemic. Coach Leif Shay figures he lost about a dozen players from his program who transferred and started for other schools this season. Riverhead has only two remaining players from its 2019 team, James Foster and Lamarion Hopkins, and entered this season as the 12th-seeded team in 12-team Division I.
Talk about adversity.
These underdogs are headed for the playoffs.
Riverhead did what needed to be done Saturday, first defeating visiting Sachem East, 20-12, and then keeping its fingers crossed that that would be enough.
Not long after the game, the final standings for the power-rated division and playoff brackets were released. Riverhead (4-4) received the eighth and final playoff spot from Division I and will play at No. 1 Walt Whitman Friday night in the so-called qualifying round.
“Who would have thought that a low-seeded team, Riverhead, after COVID, after a budget failure, would come out and go .500 and give us a shot at playoffs?” said Riverhead quarterback Justin Mason.
“That is really crazy,” Riverhead tight end/defensive end Angelo Confort said. “I didn’t think that we were gonna do this good. I thought maybe we win one or two games, but we won four and now we’re in the playoffs, which is crazy.”
All things considered, it is rather remarkable.
Talking to his players after the game and in postgame interviews, Shay repeatedly spoke of how proud he was of them.
“Our kids worked hard, you know,” he said. “They don’t like to be, you know, in the hole. They keep fighting their way out. That’s the spirit of the town. That’s who we are.”
That fighting spirit came in handy on the slick, wet grass at Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field. The running game was vital in a Senior Day game played under an overcast sky with intermittent rain that made for treacherous footing.
Amari Funn only needed to look at the weather forecast to know what that meant for him: The junior running back was going to get a lot of carries. Funn ran the ball 32 times for 153 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran in a two-point conversion after his first TD.
Michael Vurchio had two short TD runs for Sachem East (3-5).
Despite the weather, Riverhead had some success with big plays through the air. On its first play from scrimmage, some trickery — Danny Squires took a handoff before launching a 48-yard pass to John Booker, setting up the first score. Squires played his first game after missing the previous six with a broken right hand.
Mason floated a 9-yard TD pass to Confort, who fought off a defender in the end zone for the catch, extending Riverhead’s lead to 14-6 late in the third quarter. Before the quarter ended, Vurchio’s second TD pulled the Flaming Arrows within 14-12. An attempted two-point pass was intercepted by Funn.
Funn gave Riverhead an eight-point cushion on his 15-yard run with 6:57 left in the game.
Sachem East threatened late, moving the ball to the Riverhead 15-yard line before Funn picked off another pass. A 34-yard catch by Squires (three receptions, 97 yards) helped the Blue Waves keep alive their game-ending drive.
Sachem East’s Gino Larotonda ran for 121 yards.
Hopkins made 10 tackles and Booker had eight for Riverhead.
Squires said, “The team has just been really solid this whole season and playing their hearts out, giving it everything, so I’m very honored to be on this team, play with this caliber of guys.”
What does it say about the Blue Waves that their season didn’t come to an end Saturday?
“We’re warriors,” Confort said, “and we came out here and we fought and everybody doubted us, but we didn’t care and we just did what we did.”
Said Funn, “Nobody ever thought we were gonna be in this situation.”
KELLY HONORED AT HALFTIME
WRIV radio play-by-play announcer Pat Kelly, who is stepping down after 33 years in that capacity after this season, was presented with an honorary plaque from the Blue Waves Touchdown Club during a halftime ceremony outside of the press box.
Public address announcer Bob Ries called Kelly “a true icon.” Ries said: “I’ve been blessed to be in the booth right next to him, and I just can’t tell you the amount of respect I have for his preparation and his skill and knowledge. What he does to get information that we talk to fans about is phenomenal.”
When Kelly took the microphone, he told the crowd: “It seems like 33 years have gone in the blink of an eye, but the memories will be there forever as I move on, and God bless you all. Thank you all and go Blue Waves!”