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06/19/13 12:34am
06/19/2013 12:34 AM
GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Jeff Pittman of Riverhead coming down with an interception for Long Island late in the second quarter.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Jeff Pittman of Riverhead coming down with an interception for Long Island late in the second quarter.


Jeff Pittman and Nick Ross played their final football game for Riverhead in December, but it wasn’t their last high school game. That occurred on a rainy Tuesday night when the two seniors played for Long Island in the Empire Challenge all-star game. But not even that game marked the end of their playing days. The two Blue Waves have collegiate careers to look forward to — at the same college.

It wasn’t a grand plan, but Pittman and Ross will both play football for Becker College, an NCAA Division III team in Worcester, Mass., this fall. Not only that, but a third Riverhead player, defensive tackle Kyle McCabe, will join them.

“I’m looking forward to moving to the next level with my two boys, who I played four years with,” Ross said. “Now I have four new years with them.”

Another future Becker player, free safety Davin Collins (New Utrecht), also played in Tuesday’s game, although he wore a red New York City uniform.

Before moving on to college, Pittman and Ross had some final business to attend to, making sure their final high school game was a triumphant one. With their help on defense, Long Island handed New York City a 40-8 pasting before 9,869 fans at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium.

Uniondale running back William Stanback became the first player in the 18-year history of the Empire Challenge to score four touchdowns in the game and he received the most valuable player award. Stanback also tied a record with his three rushing touchdowns.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead's Nick Ross, fending off a block by New York City's Chad Vickers, played defensive end for the first time in two years.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead’s Nick Ross, fending off a block by New York City’s Chad Vickers, played defensive end for the first time in two years.

Stanback, who is headed to Central Florida, finished with a Long Island record 138 yards from 12 carries, 87 of those yards coming on a dazzling 87-yard dash in the fourth quarter. That run tied for the second-longest run in Empire Challenge history.

Stanback’s first touchdown was a memorable one. Brian McKean threw a sideline pass to Tom Zenker, who then lateralled to Stanback, who ran the ball in for an 18-yard scoring connection that made the score 19-0 with 12 minutes 38 seconds left in the second quarter.

Pittman and Ross did their part as Long Island limited New York City to 162 yards in total offense and caused six turnovers. One of those was an interception by Pittman. The cornerback won a jump ball late in the second quarter against New York City’s Malique Belfort at the Long Island 2-yard line, and returned the ball 22 yards.

“I just had a better position on him, and I just grabbed it, and I wasn’t letting go,” said Pittman, who also had five tackles. “I’m just proud to leave this game on a good note. I have to admit, in practices I wasn’t doing so good, but I know … when it’s game time I show up.”

Ross made an impact, too. Although he played middle linebacker and offensive tackle for Suffolk County Division II champion Riverhead, Ross played defensive end on Tuesday for the first time in two years. Long Island needed a speed rusher off the edge, and Ross responded with three tackles and a sack, which he followed up by blowing a kiss to the crowd.

“I was a little rusty at first, but when I got the hang of it, I was back to my old ways,” said Ross.

Long Island put its stamp on the game from the beginning. Its two quarterbacks, A. J. Otranto and McKean, both ran for touchdowns on the team’s first two possessions.

New York City’s starting quarterback, Matthew Domina, left the game on a stretcher in the first quarter. It was reported that he had fractured his ankle while being tackled.

Long Island took a 26-0 lead by the time the third quarter was 5:45 old. Its running game collected 219 rushing yards to 16 for New York City.

New York City’s only touchdown came with 8:17 left in the third quarter when Miami-bound Augustus Edwards took the ball in from five yards out.

Kendall Thomas (Jefferson), who returned a kickoff 75 yards in the third quarter for New York City, was named the player of the game.

Long Island won the Empire Challenge for the third straight year and is 10-6 all-time against New York City.

Ross said he had never before played in a game of such a high caliber. “College atmosphere, college speed, talent,” he said. “These boys here are no joke.”

Riverhead had another connection to the game besides the two players it sent. The Blue Waves’ coach, Leif Shay, was on the Long Island coaching staff.

Ross, who plans to frame his No. 90 Long Island jersey, said he was speechless, but honored to be a part of the experience.

Pittman, referring to Long Island’s eight practices over two weeks, had some words, though.

“You know it’s grueling,” he said. “Nobody wants to wake up early in the morning and go to practice … but you have to get it done. It was worth it, leaving your high school career on the field with a victory on a big stage like this.”

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09/08/12 5:53pm
09/08/2012 5:53 PM

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead senior Jeff Pittman races into the end zone for a touchdown Saturday against West Babylon.


Being the No. 1 seed in Suffolk County Division II is one thing; living up to that high seeding is something else.

Receiving the top seed in the preseason coaches poll is a nice honor, but Riverhead coach Leif Shay knows full well that it evaporates the instant the first football is kicked off in the new season. Teams prove themselves on the field, just like the Blue Waves did on Saturday.

Riverhead opened its 2012 season in impressive fashion, shutting out No. 7 seed West Babylon, 42-0, at Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field. Jeremiah Cheatom, a junior running back, broke free for touchdown runs of 62 and 61 yards, and senior quarterback Ryan Bitzer was directly involved in three touchdowns himself. Bitzer connected on scoring tosses of 46 yards to Jeff Pittman and 24 yards to Quinn Funn in addition to running for one touchdown himself on a naked bootleg from three yards out.

While the Riverhead offense generated 504 yards and didn’t turn the ball over once, the Blue Waves showed themselves to be good tacklers, too. The defensive unit forced five turnovers by West Babylon, and the Eagles never moved the ball closer than within 30 yards of the Riverhead goal line. Four West Babylon passes were intercepted, including two by the ball-hawking Jeff Pittman. Matthew Hejmej recovered a fumble and picked off a pass. Michael Von Bommel led Riverhead with seven tackles.

In short, all facets of the game were working for the Blue Waves.

“It was pretty much picture perfect, even to the punt team,” Bitzer said, referring to punter Nickolas Ross, who delivered a pair of 44-yard punts and pinned West Babylon on its own 9-yard line on another effort. “We just went out there and did our thing.”

And there was a little magic in the air on this windy afternoon. Riverhead’s first offensive play of the game was called by someone who had won a raffle to benefit Christopher Timpone, an Aquebogue Elementary School student with cancer. That play call proved to be the right one. Bitzer lofted a pass for Pittman, who was wide open, executing a stop-and-go pattern down the left side for the game’s first points 2 minutes 9 seconds into the first quarter.

“It worked,” said Shay.

Three turnovers set up three Riverhead touchdowns in the first half, which ended with the score 28-0 and the result safe in hand for the home team.

West Babylon was not at full strength. The team had been hit by injuries, and more of them followed on Saturday.

“They have a lot of injuries,” Shay said. “If you look at their sideline, it looks like a triage unit.”

Perhaps the injuries were too exasperating for West Babylon coach Al Ritacco to talk about in any sort of detail. “We just got hurt,” he said. “I just about lost my entire backfield.” Then, without any explanation, Ritacco walked away from the reporter he was speaking to, ending an interview that lasted less than 30 seconds.

By the time Riverhead’s offense took to the field 5:23 into the third quarter, Bitzer was standing on the sideline with a headset on and victory secure. His backup, junior Cody Smith, threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Hubbard for Riverhead’s final touchdown with 5:20 to go in the game.

“We kept pushing, we kept driving,” Pittman said. “We just kept doing what we had to do today.”

Riverhead had made a bold statement to anyone paying attention that it is a team to be taken seriously.

“We’re number one, we had to make a statement,” said Cheatom, who ran the ball 11 times for 159 yards. “Everybody believed in themselves.”

Bitzer, who completed 7 of 12 passes for 147 yards, expected a high-caliber performance from his team and got one. “We just wanted to come out today and prove ourselves, prove ourselves to the community, letting them know that we’re here for real, and everyone else in our division, too,” he said. “I think we did a good job with that today.”

As well as Cheatom played, Shay indicated that better days are ahead for Riverhead’s top running back. “Jeremiah doesn’t know how good he’s going to be yet,” the coach said. “He’s still learning. He’s still got to learn to read the zone properly. He has explosiveness [and] ability, but he has to learn how to just do it consistently. I wasn’t happy with a lot of two-yard runs, three-yard runs. I need four- or five-yard runs out of him. He’s got to work on that part of his game.”

One bright spot for West Babylon was the running ability of quarterback Clifton Melhado, who gained 129 yards on 25 carries.

But the light shined on Riverhead most of all. The Blue Waves showed that there is some substance behind their preseason ranking.

“It’s not a fluke at all, but it’s only the first week,” Pittman said. “We still have another seven games, the playoffs. You have to actually show what your team is made of.”

This is the third top-seeded team Shay has coached during his 15 years in charge of Riverhead. He knows that things can go south rather suddenly and he knows better than to make too much out of one game. For Week One, though, it wasn’t a bad step.

Said Cheatom, “This is the best start we could have hoped for.”

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