A team of destiny: The story of the undefeated 2008 Riverhead Blue Waves

As 22-mile-per-hour winds swirled around Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium, and the wind-chill factor made it feel like 12 degrees, the Riverhead Blue Waves huddled inside their locker room preparing for the Division II county championship against West Islip.

A calm silence fell over the group.

Through the walls, they could hear the raucous pre-game festivities from the visitor’s locker room. Rock music blared over the speakers. Players were screaming, pumping each other up for the biggest game to date of the 2008 season.

Every moment of the past year had led the Blue Waves — a deep, physical and skilled team on par with any of the greats in Long Island’s history — to this game. Each player, from superstar halfback Miguel Maysonet to the players at the end of the bench, sat quietly and focused on their mission. This was a team of destiny.

This month marks the 10-year anniversary of that magical playoff ride that saw the Blue Waves become Suffolk County’s first 12-0 team and the first unanimous choice for the Rutgers Trophy as the top team in the county. Their 42-6 win over Elmont in the Class II Long Island Championship on Nov. 29, 2008, at Stony Brook University remains the widest margin of victory of any Class II championship game since the current format began in 1992. They were a team without a weakness that featured an excess of riches on both sides of the ball. Led by a spirited group of senior leaders, the players approached each offseason workout, each practice, each play on the field with fierce determination.

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“I just remember the scout team [in practice], the running back would run a play and the kids on defense would pick him up and throw him back to the huddle,” said Riverhead coach Leif Shay. “They would just really go after it. It was a lot fun.”

Riverhead has a long, rich football history dating back to the days of Ed Danowski, an all-county player in 1927-30 who went on to play halfback for the New York Giants. For all the successes, including Rutgers Trophy teams in 1953, 1988 and 2003, it would be hard to argue any team matches the greatness of the 2008 Blue Waves. The dazzling runs of Maysonet, who rushed for over 2,300 yards and 33 touchdowns en route to the Hansen Award as the top player in the county, stand out, of course. Maysonet made a run at the NFL for two years in 2013 and 2014 after finishing a stellar collegiate career at Stony Brook University. But the Blue Waves in ’08 were much more than Maysonet. There was the charismatic, hard-hitting defensive end Andrew Smith; the quick, left-handed quarterback Tim Velys; the emotional leader and defensive back Tyler Gilliam; the mountain on the line in Jon LaGue; the speedster wideout Rasheen Moore and a coaching staff that had brought Riverhead to a county title in 2003 and was eager to build on the lessons learned that year.

“We are one big family,” Maysonet would say that season.

Miguel Maysonet, left, Rasheen Moore and Tim Velys. (Credit: Garret Meade)

And if all that talent wasn’t enough, a few days into the start of training camp, a new face arrived at practice: linebacker Malcolm Cater.

“We had heard something about him, but we really didn’t get to see him until he showed up,” said Michael Hejmej, who was a junior in 2008 and earned the dubious honor of serving as Cater’s backup at middle linebacker. “I just remember the first day of practice with him on the field was insane. My first experience with him was when I had to line up right in front of him and I was his hitting dummy.”

Assistant coach Steve Gevinski recalled during that summer asking his fellow coaches how the offseason workouts had been going.

“Coach goes, ‘We got this new kid in Cater, he’s a transfer. Wait until you see this kid!’ ” Gevinski said. “We were obviously loaded already. To put this guy in, he was a hitting machine. That kind of put us over the top, you could say.”

Cater, also a junior that year, went on to win the Hansen Award the next year, giving the Blue Waves a repeat winner.

Pat Kelly, the longtime voice of the Blue Waves on WRIV, recalled a play against North Babylon where Cater stuffed the halfback on third-and-goal.

“Ka-boom! Right through the line from the middle linebacker spot,” Kelly said. “The phrase I always used, he went through that line like a hot knife through butter.”

When the Blue Waves faced West Islip at Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field in Week 6, it was a matchup of two undefeated teams that this newspaper dubbed “one of the most anticipated regular-season games in years.”

The Blue Waves, led by a stellar performance from Maysonet — who rushed for 302 yards with 5 touchdowns — dismantled the Lions 34-13. Shay called it a “career-defining moment” for Maysonet.

“I’ll cherish this one,” the running back said afterward.

Players hoist the championship trophy after winning the LIC. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

The Blue Waves capped their unbeaten regular season with a 35-7 win over Bellport behind a big day from Velys, who threw three touchdowns to Moore. It set the stage for a playoff run that for the first time required four games to win the Long Island title. The playoffs that year were expanded from four to eight teams. In the first game against West Babylon, the Blue Waves tallied 43 points by halftime, a familiar theme throughout the season. In nearly every game, the second and third string players finished the game in the second half, which makes all the gaudy stats that much more remarkable.

“Knowing that we had the talent that we did, I think we all did an awesome job every single week, every single day,” Velys said. “Never playing down to an opponent. Everyone was so worried about playing well and playing well for the team and each other. It all worked out incredibly well.”

In the county championship, the Blue Waves faced their toughest test of the season, having to overcome the frigid cold on top of a tough West Islip team for the second time. Entering the fourth quarter, the game remained scoreless, and the Blue Waves were in uncharted territory.

Shay said the Blue Waves often ran no huddle on offense that season and used hand signals to relay plays. West Islip had figured out their signals and knew what plays were coming.

“We had to switch it up,” he said. “Give [West Islip] credit. And they came up with a good game plan. But we felt as long as we were close, our athletes would eventually take over.”

Tyler Gilliam, center, leads the celebration. (Credit: Garret Meade)

A Maysonet touchdown in the fourth quarter finally put the Blue Waves on the board and Velys added a 44-yard run that made it 13-0, which held up as the final score.

“It was kind of like one of those picture-perfect seasons,” Velys said. “Everything was going right for us for a majority of the year.”

If there was any chance the Blue Waves’ season would be derailed, it was up to West Islip to seize that moment in the fourth quarter. And when they couldn’t, the Nassau County champion Elmont had little hope one week later on Thanksgiving weekend.

Before a crowd of 3,000, the Blue Waves raced out a 20-0 first-quarter lead and never looked back. By halftime, it was 35-0.

In a way, the players felt like rock stars in Riverhead that year.

“Football is one of those things that definitely brings the community together,” Velys said. “The fans were absolutely awesome. I would say rock stars when you’re 17, 18 years old, we probably felt that way. The support we had was outrageous.”

The all-county players and coaches pose with the Rutgers Trophy. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

In the years that followed, many of the players’ paths have headed in different directions. Several went on to play football in college, most notably Maysonet and Cater. While Maysonet got a chance at the NFL, Cater’s career quickly spun off course due to his own downfall at Syracuse University when he was arrested for burglary in 2010. He would eventually resurrect his career at the University of Charleston, playing his final game in 2015.

Looking back at the 2008 Blue Waves, comparisons can easily be made to the other great teams from Suffolk County over the past 27 years of the current Long Island championship era. Bellport and North Babylon, for example, both have turned out great teams. William Floyd, a Division I team, capped its third straight undefeated season in 2007 with as dominant a performance as any. In Division III, Sayville has boasted some of the best offensive performances, most recently with quarterback Jack Coan, who now plays for Wisconsin.

It’s impossible to know how one team would fare against another. But one thing has become certain: In Riverhead’s history, there’s no topping the 2008 Blue Waves.

Top photo caption: The Blue Waves celebrate the Long Island Championship win on Nov. 29, 2008. (Credit: Garret Meade)

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