For years beginning in the early 2000s, Riverhead dominated the football scene, bringing home championships and putting together one powerhouse team after another. Behind legendary coach Leif Shay, the winning culture was instilled in every player climbing the ranks and the commitment to excellence was paramount.
But after COVID-19 restrictions and deep school budget cuts sparked a mass exodus of the best athletes in the district, there has been very little winning going on. The football team posted a 3-5 record last season, and every other major boys sports team missed the playoffs in their respective sports. The athletic department has been in rebuild mode.
The Blue Waves are trying to turn the tide this year — and it all starts with the football team.
“We’re tired of using the COVID and budget cuts excuse,” second-year head coach Ed Grassman said. “This is the year we finally turn this thing around. We’re recruiting everyone in the school to play and although the numbers aren’t quite where they were in our heyday, they’re steadily climbing.”
Between JV and varsity, Riverhead typically fielded around 80 to 100 players at the start of summer training camp. Last year, only 40 players showed up. This year, the attendance was around 60.
“We know this program doesn’t get rebuilt overnight,” Grassman said. “But we’re doing everything we can to catch up. We’re doing extra work in the weight room, meeting more often in the off-season, doing flag football leagues to increase interest. I want to leave these younger coaches with something to build off.”
Former standout safety Edwin Perry — a member of the 2008 Long Island championship team — has fully taken over as defensive coordinator for long time coach Scott Hackal. And former JV assistant Ryan McCormick will handle the offensive play-calling. They’re spearheading a new culture, building on what Shay has left behind and making it their own.
Riverhead has always been a run-first team, which forced opponents to consistently key in on the middle of the field, allowing for the occasional devastating, big-play pass. This year, it’s going to be quite the opposite; the coaching staff is going to run a spread offense with four wide receivers in the set.
“We don’t have those big tight ends like we always did in the past,” Grassman said. “We have to change based on what we got. We’re going to be more of a passing team this year. We’ve got a lot of fast, athletic guys that we are going to take advantage of.”
With emerging sophomore quarterback Maurice Scott under center for the first time this year, the future is bright. The signal-caller is wise beyond his years, stands 6-foot-1 and slings a sweet ball across the field.
“There have been a lot of great quarterbacks in Riverhead’s history before me and I just want to follow in their footsteps and win games,” Scott said. “We’ve been working so hard to grow as a team and I’m hoping we can get back in the playoffs this year.”
Riverhead will rely on a handful of seniors this year to lead the way including OL/DL Andy Mardice, MLB/RB Aidan Daniels, WR/DB Mason McLean, DE/OT Connor Golz and WR John Lennon III.
“We’re approaching things a lot different this season,” Mardice said. “We’ve been a lot more team-oriented in the off-season with weightlifting and even pushing the younger kids to come practice with us. That changes a lot. I know we have a young core behind us and we have to lead by example.”
“We’re a lot more disciplined,” McLean added. “A lot closer than we’ve been before. There’s less goofing around at practice. We’re locked in.”
A lot of the turnaround is going to be predicated by the play of Daniels, whose brother Albert was a standout running back for the Blue Waves a few years ago.
“The community might not believe in us after the last couple years, but we’re going to make some noise this year,” Daniels said. “Once they see us play, they’ll believe in us.”
“Yeah,” Mardice intervened. “Don’t sleep on us.”
Riverhead will open the season Sept. 9 at home against Bay Shore.