Some might look at the project of bouncing back from the sort of adversity the Riverhead High School girls basketball team has faced — and continues to face — and shudder. Not the Blue Waves’ new coach. Cherese Hinckson not only likes a challenge, she embraces it.
And, make no mistake, this is a challenge.
Riverhead took to the court this season for the first time in nearly two full years, a result of the coronavirus pandemic and a failed school budget. Only two players entered this season with prior varsity experience, junior Michaela Ligon and senior Zyaire Hartfield.
Now that’s a challenge.
To help solve this challenge, Hinckson has devised a 1% solution. The idea is for Riverhead to get 1% better every single game. After a while, those 1% improvements add up.
Hinckson said Riverhead made a 1% jump Tuesday, even though it came in a 75-51 loss to visiting William Floyd in the Suffolk County League I opener for both teams. Despite the one-sided final score, Riverhead (1-3, 0-1) battled hard till the end. Hinckson would have it no other way.
Hinckson, a former Amityville High School player who went on to play for Delaware State University and Dowling College, said that was her mindset as a player. “I want you to continue to fight,” she said. “When I played basketball — not that I lost a lot of games — I always believed even when we would play championships — and there [were] championships that I lost — but the tears didn’t roll out of my eyes when I lost until the scoreboard said 0:00 on that clock. That’s when I knew it was over. That’s when my fight was over. So I want my girls to fight until it says 0:00 on that clock.”
Riverhead faced tremendous pressure from athletic, skillful William Floyd (5-1, 1-0). The Colonials don’t have a single senior on their roster, which includes three eighth-graders and three sophomores. All three of those sophomores started, including Kayla Gilmore, who turned in a quadruple-double — almost unheard of in high school girls basketball. The Gilmore girl recorded 24 points, 14 steals, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. She would have scored even more if she had better luck at the free-throw line, where she went 6-for-15.
Another Floyd sophomore, Jacky Sutherland, poured in 28 points.
“We’ve been playing tough defense and putting the ball in the hoop,” said Floyd coach Rich Sinclair.
That formula continued as Floyd pressured Riverhead into 38 turnovers and 30.0% field-goal shooting. Floyd, which shot 45.9%, blew the game open by outscoring Riverhead, 26-8, in the second quarter when Gilmore had nine points. That stretched a five-point lead to 41-18 by halftime.
Ligon (16 points, 13 rebounds) and Ryleigh Downs (12 points, 12 rebounds) both produced double-doubles and Hartfield had 10 points.
Just returning to the court has been a win for the Blue Waves.
“It means the world to me,” Downs said. “I wouldn’t be where I am right now, mentally and physically, without basketball and my teammates and my new coach.”
Downs said Riverhead is at a disadvantage compared to opposing teams that played a compressed season last winter. “[They] had a season last year, had the chemistry to get to know each other, had the fights, the coaching, the everything. They had it all, but we sit there and we look and we didn’t have anything, but our group of girls is working as much as we can to get where we need to be.”
Ligon said: “It’s been a little bit of a challenge. A lot of the other teams have had a little more experience playing with each other, being that we haven’t had the two years, but we’re starting, we’re building a new culture, as our coach said. So we’re starting to figure things out and I think every game we’ve been getting better so far.”
Hinckson had coached at Boynton Beach High School in Florida and at Amityville before coming to Riverhead. She said she wants to foster a positive culture.
“Even when we face adversity, I want positivity,” she said. “And that’s the kind of person I’m going to be. Regardless of the score, you’ll always see me running up and down those sidelines screaming. I might be saying whatever I want to say; I don’t know what I’m saying. But at the same time, I’m always going to be a positive person, and I want that to trickle down to my team.”