COURTESY PHOTO | Riverhead girls lacrosse player Alley Romer (right) fights for a ground ball during a game against Huntington. The girls team features girls from seventh to ninth grade and is one of the newest teams added to Riverhead’s budding travel program.
When the Riverhead boys lacrosse team clinched a spot in the playoffs last year as the No. 13 seed, the accomplishment was met with the kind of fanfare expected of a program reaching a new height. The Blue Waves may not have advanced beyond round one, but it was a stepping stone.
To take that next step — from becoming a fringe playoff team to a program that succeeds at a high level year after year — the lacrosse community in Riverhead looked to the best models available: Shoreham-Wading River, Three Village, West Islip and Smithtown. All of the top lacrosse communities around Suffolk County feature a bevy of travel teams beginning at a young age, for which kids have the opportunity to play lacrosse year round.
Now, thanks to the dedication of three parents, those opportunities continue to grow for Riverhead students.
When Steve Weir and John Roca were coaching a PAL lacrosse team a few years ago, they realized how few opportunities existed for kids. The PAL season ended in mid-spring. And that was it.
“We had some success at PAL,” said Weir, who has a son and daughter who play lacrosse. “We were beating teams and the kids were doing good and we wanted to continue it. And we had parents asking us, ‘What’s next?’ ”
Three years ago, Weir, Roca and Andrew Fitzpatrick — all of whom have children in the district — formed Riverhead Athletics, Inc., an organization dedicated to forming and funding travel lacrosse teams specifically for Riverhead students. It started with just one team.
Now the organization features a varsity boys team, a JV boys team, a rising 7th-grade boys team and a girls team for seventh- to ninth-graders. Plans are in place for a varsity girls team and an additional boys team for next year.
“As we’ve been expanding this each year, it’s just gotten better and better,” said Riverhead boys varsity coach Vic Guadagnino. “Now the kids are looking forward to it. It’s not work anymore.”
Guadagnino coaches the boys varsity team, giving him valuable time to work with the athletes during the offseason. Other coaches in the Riverhead program volunteer to coach some of the teams as well.
The travel teams can play year round, from fall tournaments to winter leagues to summer tournaments. In the fall, Riverhead will play in Shoreham-Wading River’s Fall Classic, a tournament that attracts teams from across the Northeast and hundreds of college coaches. This past summer the varsity team of 24 boys competed in tournaments at Stony Brook, Hofstra, Maryland and Syracuse.
“It went well,” Guadagnino said. “We went 10-5-1 this summer so it was pretty successful for us with everybody playing. All the guys did well and new guys adapted to the system.”
The tournaments are prime opportunities for college coaches to notice players. That already happened for Riverhead’s Blake Carrara. While only heading into his sophomore year, Carrara verbally committed to attend powerhouse University of Maryland.
A defenseman, Carrara had the job of covering an opposing team’s top midfielder last spring as a freshman on varsity.
Guadagnino said Carrara’s performance during the Long Island Lacrosse Showcase, when he played on a rising sophomore team, jumped out at college coaches.
“The tryout and the game he was unbelievable,” Guadagnino said. “From that he went to the Maverick Showcase Tournament and dominated at that. It went from some [college] attention, to wow, this kid can play.”
It quickly evolved into a whirlwind recruiting tour. In one 19-hour day, Carrara visited Virginia, Maryland and Loyola.
“I became almost like his secretary,” Guadagnino said.
Carrara chose to commit to Maryland, although it’s a non-binding agreement and he can’t officially sign a National Letter of Intent until November 2015.
Weir’s son Ben played on the varsity as a freshman last year, as did Fitzpatrick’s son, Austin.
“Blake is one of those kids who hits the field and he just gets it done,” Weir said.
One of the biggest advantages of Riverhead’s travel program, Weir said, is the mitigated cost. Through fundraising, and generous donations from a few big sponsors, the cost of playing on the teams is less than most travel teams.
“It can be a burden for parents,” Weir said. “But we’ve been able to keep the prices way less than these parents would have to pay for a travel team.”
Weir said Farm Credit East donated money for the development of a girls team. Last Friday at Stonewalls Restaurant at Cherry Creek Golf Course, the organization held its second golf outing. More than 160 people attended, Weir said, to help raise funds to support the lacrosse teams.
“All the other fundraising we do is just knocking on doors,” Weir said.
The Blue Waves will soon be knocking on doors on the field now, too.