Riverhead student-athletes may have never faced as much adversity and as daunting a challenge as they have during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s saying something: Riverhead interscholastic sports can be traced back at least as far as to 1898.
While Long Island public schools suffered a blow when the spring season of 2020 was lost before it started because of the arrival of the pandemic in March of that year, Riverhead absorbed a double hit in the 2020-21 school year. Athletics fell victim to cuts after school budgets failed at the polls, forcing the district to operate on an austerity budget. Riverhead’s spring sports teams missed out in 2020 because of the pandemic, and its fall and winter sports teams were denied the opportunity to play in 2020 or the compressed seasons in the first several months of 2021 because they didn’t have the funding.
Riverhead did find money — attributed to lower than anticipated insurance costs — to field teams this past spring, but much of the damage had already been done by then.
“All sports got hammered,” said Bob Ries, the longtime public-address announcer for Riverhead’s home football and boys and girls basketball games. He said, “All of our interscholastic sports just stopped, plain and simple.”
As a result, the district saw a flight of athletes to other schools. The talent drain was considerable. What some believed would have been the best Riverhead girls lacrosse team ever never got a chance to play in 2020 after the pandemic put a halt to everything. The Riverhead football team lost about a dozen starting-caliber players who transferred to other schools, said coach Leif Shay. And on it went.
“I thought my basketball high school career was going to be over at that point,” senior Ryleigh Downs said. “I think everyone in my grade was horrified.”
Riverhead athletics were shut down for over 13 months — 410 days, to be precise. The district’s sports programs returned for the 2021-22 school year, but programs have had to deal with lower numbers.
Those Riverhead athletes who remained in many cases found themselves competing for weakened teams with athletes who, in some instances, had little or no experience in the sport. Some athletes made the jump straight from middle school to the varsity level, skipping junior varsity altogether because of the needs of the program. “It’s a huge jump,” said girls basketball coach Cherese Hinckson.
In light of all of this, the Riverhead News-Review has named the Riverhead athlete as its 2021 Sportsperson of the Year, in recognition of the hardships each and every Riverhead athlete — from the middle school to the varsity level — has endured. It certainly hasn’t been easy for them.
“It took a huge toll,” Downs said. “You could see everybody was just bored in school. That was an everyday topic between everybody. Everybody was always talking about how there was no budget, no sports, nothing to look forward to.”
Some athletes trained on their own, in the hope that their school teams would return.
“It’s very challenging when you don’t have a coach yelling at you,” senior wrestler Dominick Gambino said. “You got to push through.”
Riverhead athletic director Brian Sacks said there hasn’t been an official count of the number of athletes Riverhead lost to transfers, “but I know there’s a large number of Riverhead students playing on other teams right now — and some really good athletes.”
Only two players remained from the 2019 Riverhead football team. Despite being seeded last in Suffolk County Division I, the Blue Waves still managed to reach the playoffs and finish with a 4-5 record last fall.
“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 after the team’s 48-0 playoff loss to Walt Whitman. “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 pandemic/failed school budget impacted different teams in different ways. The boys golf team shared the League VII championship with Mattituck for the second time in three years. For the most part, though, it may take some time for other programs to return to where they were before the pandemic.
“I would say it’s going to be a two- to three-year recovery before you get the numbers back, before you get the full year-round programs for each sport,” said Ries.
Sacks, though, is encouraged by what he is seeing. “Honestly, we’re recovering a lot quicker than I thought,” he said.
Steve Gevinski, who coaches the boys winter and spring track teams, has noticed an uptick in numbers since last spring. More than that, he’s seen smiles from his athletes, who are back on track, doing what they love to do. “They’re loving life,” he said.
D.J. Spruill, a senior basketball player, said it was “heartbreaking” not having a team to play for and he was delighted to be back on the court again. “When I first touched that jersey,” he said, “I just felt my heart race.”
Downs said: “A bunch of kids moved to different schools because they thought their high school career was gonna be over, but a bunch of us stayed and fought for that, so we got it all back. And we’re all here fighting for what we want.”
Asked if he had a message for Riverhead’s athletes, who have been through so much, Sacks answered: “I think the first thing is, ‘Thank you.’ Thank you for staying and thank you for coming back. I mean, it just wasn’t easy for an 11th- or 12th-grader to stay out or work or whatever they were doing. They came back and they wanted to rebuild and they wanted to, you know, become a Blue Wave again.”
The value of sports was highlighted by its absence.
“It’s an everyday thing for some people to look forward to,” Downs said. “That’s some people’s escape, to go to practice after school, work out their struggles.”
One of her teammates, junior Michaela Ligon, said: “I definitely appreciate it more. Not having a season last year … I appreciate having it this year and I will never take it for granted again.”
Editor’s Note: There was no Sports Person of the year named in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.