Fans waited as linebacker Andrew Kinard climbed up to the town bell and rang it for all to hear. It is tradition to ring the bell to celebrate a football victory -- and this one rang loud.
Kinard, the emotional leader of the Riverhead Blue Waves -- who said he cried during halftime speeches in Saturday's showdown with West Islip -- led a jubilant throng around the bell after a 33-21 comeback victory in Suffolk II football.
"Yeah, man, I was definitely overcome with emotion," Kinard said. "Last year, I fumbled twice and we lost to West Islip. And we outplayed them in the first half and we were still down by a point. I wanted our guys to rally around each other and pull this one out so bad."
Kinard led a swarming, hard-hitting defense that held West Islip to 56 second-half yards and senior halfback Jeremiah Cheatom scored two of his three touchdowns in the fourth quarter as Riverhead pulled away for the pivotal win.
Cheatom, who finished with 228 yards on 38 carries, scored on runs of 48, 13 and 5. He rumbled for 141 yards on 14 carries in the second half. He could be seen on the bench exhorting his team to battle through penalty calls and mistakes.
"He's a true leader, a guy who gets everything out of his offensive line," Riverhead coach Leif Shay said. "They appreciate him and he knows how to speak to his teammates."
Cheatom's calm demeanor helped his Blue Waves weather the West Islip storm. A back-and-forth affair was coming down to a critical series of plays early in the fourth quarter. West Islip quarterback Sam Ilario, who was held under 100 yards rushing for the first time, optioned left and his pitch was fumbled and scooped by Raheem Brown, who returned to the West Islip 10.
"We should have put them away right there," said Blue Waves quarterback Cody Smith, who completed 15 of 18 passes for 142 yards. "But I learned a lot today. We almost let it get away."
Riverhead had the ball on West Islip's 21-yard line after taking an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. But the Blue Waves had a 27-14 lead with 9:44 left and a chance to put the game away.
On the next play, Smith was pressured, and as he was being tackled, he tried to throw the ball away. Bad idea. It was intercepted by Matt McKeon and returned to the Riverhead 39.
"It could have turned the game completely around," Shay said.
Three plays later, Ilario (80 yards rushing) had his third touchdown of the game on a 1-yard run and the Lions were within 27-21 with 7:03 left.
And that's when Cheatom delivered his strongest message in the toughest of times to prevent the game from slipping away.
"Don't be denied, don't give up, keep fighting," he told his teammates.
On the first play from scrimmage, Cheatom broke two tackles and ran 30 yards to the West Islip 38. Smith ran 20 yards on a naked bootleg and connected with Michael Van Bommel for 13 yards to the 5. Cheatom put the polish on the 2:54 drive with a 5-yard score to make it 33-21.
"I've been playing football since I'm 6 years old," Cheatom said. "I play without a father and with a mother that always tells me to keep my head up and fight for what I want. Today, we fought as brothers and even in the worst of times we got through."
Riverhead (6-1) opened the scoring with a reverse option pass as backup quarterback Kenny Simco took a handoff from the wideout position, rolled to his right and threw a perfect pass to a leaping Daren Jefferson for the 7-0 lead.
West Islip (5-2) tied it at 7 on Ilario's quarterback sneak but Riverhead responded with a four-play, 72-yard scoring drive capped by a Cheatom 48-yard run for the 13-7 lead. With 3:11 left in the half, West Islip drove 55 yards in three plays in 34 seconds as Ilario busted it around right end for a 28-yard scoring run and the 14-13 halftime lead.
"Halftime was emotional," Smith said. "And we rallied for the win."