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Football: Riverhead falls in playoff rematch of early risers

Rise and shine.

Unfortunately for Riverhead, it was Walt Whitman that rose to the occasion early Saturday morning and shined in a Suffolk County Division I football game that had a 9:30 a.m. kickoff time.

And that’s no typo: 9:30 a.m., as in the morning.

Instead of a typical early afternoon start, the game was pushed to the morning because of a referee shortage, said Riverhead coach Ed Grassman.

That meant Dan Healy, who plays wide receiver and cornerback for Riverhead, had to wake up at 6:30 a.m.

“It [stinks], you know,” he said. “You wake up at 5:30 for school, so it’s not a great feeling.”

Things didn’t feel any better for the Blue Waves several hours later after they lost, 41-21, to visiting Walt Whitman at Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field.

Asked about the unusual game time, Grassman said: “It’s not an excuse for not playing well. They had to get here and they probably got up an hour earlier than us.”

Whitman (4-2) whipped Riverhead last year in a playoff qualifier, 48-0, en route to winning its first county championship since 1984 and first Rutgers Trophy since 1974 with the aid of a magnificent passing game. The Cougars no longer have strong-armed quarterback Nicholas Bottoni, nor a number of other players, and were seeded eighth in the division this year, two slots higher than Riverhead.

But Whitman has former NFL quarterback (and ex-Bishop McGann-Mercy coach) Mike Buck as its offensive coordinator and the Cougars can still move the ball. Cameron Carlson ran for three touchdowns and Jayden Taylor rushed for another in addition to passing for 177 yards on 10-of-17 passing. One of those passes, a 73-yard slant to Joseph Harrison, went for a TD. Harrison, caught four of the five passes targeted for him for 99 yards.

LeVon Short races in for a touchdown to cap a long Riverhead drive. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

Whitman generated 318 yards of offense to Riverhead’s 192.

“They’re defending Suffolk County champs and they retooled pretty good,” Grassman said. “They’re young, too. They had four sophomores and a freshman start.”

Two Whitman interceptions in the first half helped put Riverhead in a hole. Carlson had an apparent pick-six, but the score was nullified because of a penalty. No matter. Whitman scored on Taylor’s 1-yard run four plays later.

Trailing 20-0, Riverhead (2-4) mounted a drive to the Whitman 10-yard line before Brayden Zalbert intercepted the ball in the end zone with 26.5 seconds left in the first half.

“They were a bigger team,” Grassman said. “They were faster. I mean, that’s kind of what it comes down to.”

Riverhead’s LeVon Short, making his second start at quarterback, scored on a 16-yard bootleg run in the third quarter. But Whitman broke it open with a wild start to the fourth quarter. Carlson scored from 3 yards out on the first play of the quarter. Riverhead botched the ensuing kickoff, giving Whitman the ball at the Riverhead 6. Ryan Boutin ran the ball in on the next play.

“The biggest thing that I think went wrong for Riverhead is probably us letting little mistakes turn into big mistakes,” said Angelo Confort, who played slot receiver, free safety and punter for Riverhead.

The kickoff after that was returned 90 yards by Riverhead’s John Booker for a TD, his second kickoff return TD of the season.

John Lennon III quarterbacked Riverhead’s final drive of the game. Seven of the eight plays were runs by Yousses Rencher, the last being a 15-yard scamper around right end for his first varsity TD.

“He’s a senior and he’s not gonna be able to play next week because of a family commitment,” Grassman said, “so I was happy for him in his last game here that he scored.”

One of Riverhead’s highlights was an incredible diving catch by Healy for a 33-yard gain in the third quarter. “That was a great catch,” said Grassman.

Senior Amari Funn gained 71 yards on 15 carries for Riverhead.

Riverhead’s next game will be Saturday, a homecoming and Senior Day game against Brentwood scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Then the Blue Waves will close out the regular season Oct. 28 at Sachem North at 6:30 p.m.

“We’re gonna stick together,” Grassman said. “We faced some adversity this week, but we stuck together and we’re gonna play hard and we’re gonna be ready for homecoming.”

And, they’ll be able to sleep in a little later.