Girls hockey season begins for boy, 14

Southampton field hockey player Keeling Pilaro looks to Southampton field hockey player Keeling Pilaro looks to make a move in a game against Whitman. (Sept. 10, 2012) Photo Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

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Keeling Pilaro, 4-feet-10 and 85 pounds, won his fight to play field hockey with girls and said he simply wants to enjoy himself on the athletic field.

"It's a great feeling, a big relief, to be playing again and have things back to normal," said Pilaro, 14, a freshman playing for Southampton High School.

Pilaro was at the center of a debate in the spring when he and his family fought for his right to be the only boy playing field hockey on Long Island, where there are no boys teams.

Sixteen people, mostly parents of Walt Whitman players, sat in the bleachers during last Monday's game, a 5-0 win for Southampton. Pilaro did not score. About 10 students also came and went during the game, stopping only briefly to watch.

That's all fine with Pilaro, who said he's happy to be back playing the game he loves. Last spring, he was denied permission to compete this fall on the basis that he was too skilled to play against girls and that he was denying girls the opportunity to play.

Edward Cinelli, the director of Section XI -- Suffolk County's governing body of high school sports -- said before last Monday's game they will monitor Pilaro's progress and he could still be denied next spring on the basis of his ability or if his presence is keeping a girl from playing.

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"If the Southampton school district wants to apply for him to participate, then we would look at everything," Cinelli said. "We'd look at the whole season and how he played with respect to is he displacing a young lady. The big quote we use is 'significant adverse effect on the young ladies having an opportunity to succeed in the sport.' "

To that, Pilaro said, "I'm just going to play how I play and not care what they say."

Southampton coach Kim Hannigan said she won't try to alter Pilaro's game or "hold him back" for fear of how his performance will be perceived by Section XI.

"This won't inhibit him from doing his best," Keeling's mother, Fairley Pilaro, said. "Why should he hurt the team by not giving his best effort?"

According to New York's mixed competition guidelines, a boy is allowed to compete in a female sport as long as he doesn't have an adverse effect on the girls. Pilaro was Long Island's 11th-leading scorer with 21 points last season and received all-conference honors. Southampton lost in the first round of the playoffs.

Section XI's mixed competition committee said in March that Pilaro, then an eighth-grader, possessed "advanced skills" that put most girls at a disadvantage. An appeals panel upheld the ruling on April 18, but the decision eventually was overturned by the Suffolk athletic council on May 15.

When Pilaro was 6 months old, the family moved from Southampton to Ireland, and he began playing field hockey, a popular men's sport there, at age 5. The Pilaros moved back to Long Island in 2010 and their son was granted permission to play on Southampton's junior varsity team that fall. The mixed competition committee determined that his size at the time (4-foot-6, 82 pounds) wouldn't pose a physical threat to girls. He again was approved in 2011 before a promotion to varsity.

Parents at Walt Whitman last Monday said they didn't mind that Pilaro was competing against their daughters.

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"I just see him as another kid out there, although he's pretty good," said Mara Manson, whose twin daughters, Emma and Kate, play for Whitman. "There comes a time when boys physically grow differently than girls, when they begin to have a strength and speed advantage. So if you're looking down the line, yes, that could be a factor. But right now, I don't think that's the case with him."Added Wendy Grand, the mother of sophomore Shayna Pehel: "It doesn't make sense to let him play because he's small and then tell him he can't because he's good. If he's allowed on the team, he should be allowed to play no matter how many points he scores."

Pilaro's skill, not his size, is in question.

"He's going to get better," Cinelli said of Pilaro, who scored a goal in Southampton's second game, a 6-1 win over Riverhead on Tuesday. "Say he's third in scoring in Long Island this year. Is that a significant adverse effect? That's what the committee will have to evaluate."

Fairley Pilaro, who had threatened to take legal action against Section XI last spring, said the family won't look ahead to next spring and will "deal with that stuff if and when it happens."

Pilaro and his teammates said they have blocked out the distractions and are focused only on playing well. Southampton graduated 10 seniors from last year's team, so a greater responsibility will be placed on the returning players, including Pilaro.

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"It's really like it always was," senior Andrea Abbate said. "We always leave the drama off the field. We'll play like everything is back to normal."

Added team captain Emily Wesnofske: "There's nothing to worry about now. We're just concerned about making the playoffs."

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