Riverhead 2, Bay Shore 2: Blue Waves soccer squad looks to turn tide

In 50 years of competition, the Riverhead High School boys soccer team has never made the playoffs. They haven’t even notched 100 wins as a program. It’s been a struggle for decades. Head coach Evan Philcox has made it his mission to change the culture, inspire confidence and finally get over that proverbial hump.

Even though Riverhead won only two games last year — neither of them in the league — every game was close. The Blue Waves had an opportunity to win, which hasn’t been the case in the past. 

“The guys have bought in and the expectation is to compete and win,” said Philcox, who is now in his seventh year as head coach. “It’s much different than when I first came here, where the expectation was to survive and see how much we’re going to lose by. There’s none of that talk anymore. There’s a consistent product in practice every day and a consistent effort on the field. The guys know what their role is and what is expected of them.”

A lot of the cohesiveness is in part due to the effort to get the team together during the offseason. Starting last year, Philcox got the team into the summer league in Brookhaven as well as some regional tournaments over the winter.

“We try to get the guys together at least once a month in the offseason,” Philcox said. “Instead of us starting from scratch every year, we have things we can build off from offseason training and games.”

“We’re more connected now,” Blue Waves captain Carlos Gonzalez said. “All the time we spend together in the offseason made us a team. There’s no more of that selfishness we had in the past. It’s about winning now.”

On Saturday morning, the Blue Waves played their final tuneup of the season against Bay Shore in a non-league game at the Pulaski Street Complex.

Lesther Rivera broke the dead-lock 15 minutes into the game off a set play. The Blue Waves’ new weapon, towering goalkeeper Junior Lopez Alvarez, punted the ball into the box off as free kick from midfield and Rivera played it off his chest before finding the right corner of the net for the goal.

“We didn’t have Junior last year,” Philcox said. “So of course when we have a guy that can punt it 70 yards we’re going to take advantage every chance we get.”

Riverhead led through the rest of the first half before Bay Shore connected on back-to-back goals to start the second half.

“In the past we lose this game,” Philcox said. “You could see we dropped our energy level after giving up the second goal. But to their credit, the guys fought back.”

With 15 minutes left, Hector Calderon, a freshman who displayed the best work-rate of anyone on the team, stole the ball from an attacker and quickly found midfielder Anthony Yanis who launched a through-ball down the left hand side of the field. Rivera drifted past the defender and caught up to the ball before nailing it into goal to tie the game.

“Every time I have the ball I always tell myself, ‘this is my moment,’ ” Rivera said. “I want to take advantage of every opportunity.”

“Rivera’s energy is amazing,” Philcox said. “He’s a great athlete. Very fast, very strong and aggressive. He actually played a lot of defense for us in the summer but with some guys missing we needed someone to step up and he took advantage. Every time he’s on the ball he’s a threat.”

Though a few opportunities presented themselves in the remaining moments of the game, Riverhead walked away with a tie to put their preseason non-league record at 1-0-1 including a win against Greenport last week. 

Riverhead was also playing without a full squad. Starters Jayson Veliz and Wilder Valle are just coming back from vacation and have not amassed enough practices to play yet. Also there’s the all-state award winner from last year, Cris Arias, who is currently in the academy program of Major League Soccer’s NYCFC. It’s not clear whether he’ll play his junior season for the Blue Waves.

“I’m not counting on him playing with us, but if he came back imagine what a boost that would be to our team,” Philcox said. “You plug him in anywhere and he makes an impact. But we’re happy with what we got.”

Riverhead opens up its league season today, Thursday, Sept. 7, at Sachem East.

“It’s time to get some wins,” Gonzalez said. “We have the talent, we have the desire and we have the heart to do it.”