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Football: New Riverhead coach dealing with more than Xs, Os

It didn’t take long for Ed Grassman to begin feeling the pressure and stress of being a high school varsity football head coach. Much of the reason for that Monday — Riverhead’s first practice on Day One of two-a-day sessions — really had nothing to do with football.

What was the source of that stress?

Player physicals.

Because they either didn’t have physicals or their physicals hadn’t been processed, some 20 to 25 players, by Grassman’s count, were unable to participate in the practice.

“To be honest, I did not feel like I was really coaching today,” Grassman said. “More or less, I was managing everything.”

Being a head coach entails a lot more than Xs and Os, that’s for sure.

Grassman, 48, Riverhead’s offensive coordinator the last few years, is the team’s new head coach, but he’s not exactly new. He has been involved in the program since 2003. Not only is this his first head coaching job at this level, but he succeeds Leif Shay, Riverhead’s longest-serving and winningest football coach who stepped aside after 24 years in order to have time to watch his two sons play football. Shay, however, is coaching one of Riverhead’s two middle school teams.

“I never really thought Shay was gonna leave,” said Grassman, who played for Longwood High School.

Grassman said Shay had asked him in March to do him a favor and attend the Suffolk County seeding meeting in his place. “So I went to the seeding meeting with all the information and then he sent me a weird, like subliminal text,” Grassman said. “He goes, ‘A new era has begun.’ And then he came and he goes, ‘I think you can do the job. I think you’ll do good with it.’ ”

Grassman has Scott Hackal, who had been a longtime defensive coordinator for Riverhead, as his offensive coordinator. “This is a rejuvenated Scott Hackal,” said Grassman. Joe Gianotti is the defensive coordinator and Ken Marelli is the special teams coach.

Light rain and temperatures in the low-70s greeted about 67 players for the first practice. Riverhead is seeded 10th among 12 teams in Suffolk Division I. But the Blue Waves haven’t let preseason seedings deter them in the recent past. In 2019, Riverhead’s first season in Division I, it was seeded last in the division, but surprisingly went 6-3, losing to Longwood in a playoff game. After losing the 2020 season to the coronavirus pandemic, Riverhead was once again seeded last in Division I in 2021, but surpassed expectations again, reaching a playoff qualifier, losing to a powerful Walt Whitman team and finishing with a 4-5 record.

Freshman Maurice Scott, one of five candidates for the starting quarterback job, throwing a pass Monday. (Credit: Bob Liepa)

Can Riverhead surprise again?

Senior running back/outside linebacker Amari Funn thinks so. He said, “I like being the underdog.”

Riverhead has 14 seniors and 12 returning players from last year. “Basically, we’re a Division I school, with kind of Division IV numbers,” said Grassman, who believes the program is still feeling the bite suffered when the school district’s 2020-21 budget failed.

The quarterback position involves an open competition with five candidates: freshman Maurice Scott, sophomore Thomas Williams (who returned to Riverhead after transferring to St. Anthony’s), juniors John Lennon III (last year’s junior varsity starter) and Kevin Johnson and senior LeVon Short.

Riverhead must shore up a defensive line that lost two top players in James Foster, who was a four-year varsity player (he played one year for Westhampton Beach), and Lamarion Hopkins, who was a three-year starter. “That’s hard to replace,” said Grassman.

“Our lines [are] looking pretty solid, our receivers are looking good, running backs, quarterback, so it’s looking like we’re gonna have a good year, you know,” senior slot receiver/free safety Angelo Confort said. “Hopefully we can make it back to the playoffs and this time go a little bit further, and I think we can probably do that.”

Grassman has advantages in that he knows the team’s history, its system (which will not change much, he said), the players, and he also has Shay as an available resource. Grassman said Shay called him at 6 a.m. Monday morning to wish him good luck.

Grassman said the full impact of his new job will hit him Sept. 10 when Riverhead opens its season at home to Central Islip. That’s when it will become real.

“I’m going to say, it’s hard replacing, you know, a legend,” he said. “Twenty years, it’s hard to replace that. I’m just gonna try to do the best I can.”