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Football: Riverhead’s remarkable season ends

Future generations may not think much of it when they scan the year-by-year high school football records and see the 2021 entry next to Riverhead: 4-5.

That is, unless there is an asterisk attached to it. That asterisk would have to explain an awful lot about one of the most remarkable seasons in team history.

Riverhead, like other Long Island public schools, did not play a 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then was forced to sit out this past spring’s season because of cutbacks resulting from a failed school budget. The team lost about a dozen starting-caliber players who transferred to other schools, said coach Leif Shay. Not surprisingly, Riverhead was seeded 12th before this season, projected to finish dead last in Suffolk County Division I.

Adversity had become as familiar to the Blue Waves as their helmets and shoulder pads. They had every excuse not to win.

“They didn’t accept any of them, so you got to be proud of a group that does that,” said Shay.

Lo and behold, Riverhead surprised just about everyone outside of its locker room by nabbing a playoff spot as the No. 8 seed.

Just reaching the postseason was a major victory for Riverhead. As for Friday night’s so-called Division I playoff qualifier (or to put it more simply, quarterfinal), top-seeded Walt Whitman was the winner on the field, 48-0.

“I’m more proud of this team than probably any of the teams I’ve coached because of the heart these guys have,” Shay said. “They refuse to give up, and they’ve had so many setbacks and things that have hurt them along the way, but they just keep plugging away.”

The final score was misleading. The game wasn’t that close. And that’s not to be taken as a slight against Riverhead. Look at what the Blue Waves were up against.

Riverhead’s Daniel Squires runs around the left end, following Amari Funn’s lead. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

Whitman (9-0) was one of only two Suffolk teams to finish the regular season undefeated (Sayville was 8-0, too). The Cougars have outscored opponents, 345-83. 

The Blue Waves understood the mountainous task they faced. They knew the odds were stacked heavily against them. Heading into these playoffs, the top seeds on Long Island have won 111 of 112 games since 2004, according to Newsday.

And this top seed, Whitman, is a force, indeed. Consider this: Longwood had beaten Riverhead, 47-0. Whitman had defeated Longwood, 42-0.

Whitman didn’t disappoint its home fans. The Cougars scored early, often and made it look easy. On the game’s third play from scrimmage, quarterback Nicholas Bottoni scampered in for a 12-yard touchdown run. Only 42 seconds had elapsed.

Whitman scored on all five of its first-quarter possessions for a 35-0 lead, and was up, 42-0, by halftime.

The Whitman defense turned in its fourth shutout of the season, holding Riverhead to 200 yards of offense while the Cougars racked up 385.

“They had some big dudes, big, physical gymed-up dudes,” said senior captain James Foster, who played defensive end and offensive tackle. “They had a freshman on the line, number 73 [Xavier Ali], even he was gymed up © This is probably the best team on Long Island.”

Much of the first-half damage came through the air. Bottoni completed all seven of his first-half passes for 218 yards. Three of those passes went for TDs — a 9-yarder to Michael Phillips, a 53-yarder to Phillips and an 8-yarder to Brandon Ivy. Before the first quarter ended, A.J. Evans III took a 1-yard plunge into the end zone.

Shay said he thought his players were “a little shocked at how good this team was and I think, you know, we struggled to execute, but it’s hard when you’re up front and you just can’t execute because they’re just bigger and stronger.”

Evans (76 first-half yards) added a 13-yard TD run in the second quarter and J.D. Harrison ran 7 yards for a score in the third. Instead of attempting an extra point after that TD, Whitman took a knee. The Cougars did not throw a pass in the second half and substituted liberally.

“They’re multidimensional,” Shay said. “They have the best quarterback in the county and three great receivers, and they have a running back who’s like a bowling ball. It’s hard to bring him down. So you pick your poison. You want to stop the pass and [Whitman coach Robin Rosa is] gonna run the ball. You stop the run, he’s going to pass the ball.”

“On film I was looking at them,” Riverhead senior captain Gabe Arruda said. “I’m like, ‘OK, we have a chance. We can stop them here and there,’ and then we got out here and I’m like, ‘Oh, well, that didn’t happen.’ ”

He added, “They weren’t as aggressive as I thought they would be, but skill-wise, they were the best like we’ve probably ever faced.”

Riverhead’s Amari Funn ran for 83 yards.

All things considered, though, Riverhead wasn’t supposed to even be in playoff contention, and yet there it was, one of Suffolk’s biggest surprise teams.

“I’m so proud of this team, it’s beyond belief,” Foster said. “Especially with the COVID year and the budget not passing, all these things happening to these guys and it’s just, you know, it’s almost heartwarming.”