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Football: Shay stepping down after 24 years as Riverhead’s coach

Leif Shay once said — and one wonders how much of it was in jest — that shortly before he retires, he would step down as the Riverhead football coach and coach a field hockey team full of boys to the state championship.

A slate of proposed coaching appointments for the fall sports season was expected to be acted on Tuesday night by the Riverhead Board of Education. The list of names did not include Shay as the varsity football coach (or field hockey coach, for that matter).

This coming football season will mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. After 24 years, Shay, Riverhead’s longest-serving and winningest football coach, is stepping down from the varsity job. Longtime assistant coach Ed Grassman, who had been the team’s offensive coordinator, has been tabbed to be his successor.

Shay, 53, said he wants to be able to have more free time to watch his two sons play football. His eldest son, Cooper, will be a freshman playing for SUNY/Brockport this fall and his youngest son, Colton, will enter his freshman year at Hampton Bays High School.

“I’ve always preached to all the kids that the most important thing in life is to be a good father,” Shay said. “At this point, my kids are playing football. I don’t want to miss any of their games. I think it’s time for them to not have to sacrifice any more. It’s not something I had to do, but it’s something I felt I should do and it’s something I wanted to do.”

At the same time, it wasn’t an easy decision for him.

“Excruciating,” he said. “I mean, it’s been a lifetime of memories of great people and I’ve been very fortunate to do something I love to do for a long period of time.”

Shay, however, is not leaving football. He said he will coach one of the two Riverhead Middle School teams this fall. That will allow him more flexibility to see his sons play, he said.

Asked if it’s difficult for the team to say goodbye to a successful, long-standing coach like Shay, Riverhead athletic director Brian Sacks replied: “I think it’s very difficult when a guy who has built this program, who has set a lot of the traditions of this program, decides to step down. You kind of hold your breath a little bit.”

Leif Shay coaches one of his final games in 2021. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

In 1998, Shay took over a struggling Riverhead football team that had managed only four wins from its previous two seasons. That 1998 team posted a third straight 2-6 season, but it wasn’t long before Shay, a former Hofstra University offensive lineman, righted the ship. The Blue Waves won two of their four Rutgers Trophies — which go to Suffolk County’s most outstanding team — under him in 2003 and 2008. (The first two were in 1953 and 1988).

Shay, a three-time Suffolk Coach of the Year, won four county championships with the Blue Waves.

“You put a plan in place, you believe in what you do and you teach it the best you can, and eventually the kids will buy in,” Shay said. “I was very fortunate. I had great coaches [over] the years that worked with me, guys like Scott Hackal, Bill Hedges, Steve Gevinski. They’re just great, great coaches that were there every step of the way, so I’m more of a beneficiary of just a lot of people, a lot of great people doing great things.”

In 2003, Riverhead won its first county title since 1988 and reached its first Long Island championship game, losing to Garden City, 20-0.

Riverhead won its first and only Long Island championship in 2008, courtesy of a 42-6 blowout of Elmont. The Blue Waves went 12-0 that year, posting the sixth undefeated season in team history, according to Newsday’s Andy Slawson. Then, Riverhead won back-to-back county crowns in 2012 and 2013, losing to Garden City, 29-16, and Carey, 20-6, in those Long Island Class II finals.

“The memories that I have will last a lifetime,” said Shay, whose teams went 122-85. “The biggest thing for me was the relationships.”

“The will to prepare was always more important than the will to win,” he continued. “I was very privileged. I got to work with the best Riverhead had to offer for 24 years.”

Riverhead faced challenges in recent years, most notably a drop in player turnout and a failed school budget for the 2020-21 school year. If that wasn’t enough, Riverhead was bumped up from Suffolk Division II to Division I for the first time in 2019. Despite being seeded last among 12 teams before the season, Riverhead stunned many by reaching the playoffs and finishing 6-3.

After the 2020 season was lost to the pandemic, Riverhead didn’t play again until the fall of 2021. With only two remaining varsity players from the 2019 season, Riverhead was once again ranked 12th in 12-team Division I. Yet again, the Blue Waves exceeded expectations, reaching a playoff qualifier and finishing with a 4-5 record.

“Honestly unbelievable,” Sacks said of the impact Shay had on the program. “A professional every day. He cares about kids. He cares about his program. He just wants to do what’s good for everybody.”

In Grassman, Riverhead has a familiar face who knows the team and its history.

“I’m really excited for the takeover,” Sacks said. “He has been somebody that’s been under Shay for more than a decade. He knows what it takes to run this program. He knows the traditions and I think he’ll do a great job. He’s been here, he knows the kids, he knows the community, he knows the program. He’s a very good fit for us.”

Grassman was listed on the slate of proposed football coaches along with assistant coaches Joseph Gianotti, Ken Marelli and Hackal, junior varsity head coach Edwin Perry and JV assistant coach Ryan McCormick.

Change is in the air. Except for one thing.

“I still bleed blue and white, you know,” Shay said. “That’s not going to change.”