Keeling Pilaro, all 4 feet, 6 inches and 82 pounds of him, is the leading scorer on the Southampton High School field hockey team, but he's different from every other player in the sport on Long Island.
He's a boy in a girls' game.
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Across the U.S. in recent years, more girls are playing with boys in football, wrestling and baseball. But boys playing on girls' teams is relatively rare. According to a survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations, 308 boys played on "girls" teams in the 2009-10 school year and 1,012 girls were on boys teams.
Keeling, who is 13, is believed to be only the second male to ever play varsity field hockey on the Island and the first since Mark Shanahan was a goalie for Haborfields in 1987.
But that's no big deal to him, his parents, coach, teammates, school officials and even opponents. "I love it," said Keeling, who was born in Southampton. He learned to play field hockey when his family moved to Ireland -- where it is a popular men's sport. "My teammates are all fun. Whenever we have a break we joke around and have fun."
'Passion for the game'
Keeling was introduced to the game at age 5 in his primary school, and at 7 he joined a club team. "That's really where his passion for the game started," said his father, Andrew Pilaro.
The family moved back to Southampton in June 2010. Keeling's mother, Fairley Pilaro, said her four sons had reservations about returning to the U.S., especially Keeling. But his father promised him they would try to get him into field hockey in the U.S.
"I thought at first it would be easy," Keeling said. Not quite.
The parents contacted Southampton coach Kim Hannigan, who evaluated Keeling. Along with Darren Phillips, the school's athletic director, they presented a case for Keeling's eligibility to Section XI's mixed competition committee in September 2010.
"We looked at his background in the sport, his experience, his height and weight," Section XI director Edward Cinelli said. "His was a unique situation because of his size."
Keeling's eligibility was approved, but he must undergo a similar evaluation each year he intends to play in high school to make sure he doesn't have an unfair competitive advantage. A growth spurt, Cinelli said, would have an adverse effect on the appeal process.Seeing her son take the field for the first time with a group of teen girls "was one of my proudest moments as a parent," Fairley Pilaro said. "His willingness to play with a bunch of young ladies shows his dedication."
When Southampton goalkeeper Marissa Epley, a senior, found out she'd have a male teammate, she said, "I thought it was odd . . . different." But the first time she saw Keeling's dribbling ability, bouncing the ball vertically on his stick, she said: "I was amazed. I'd never seen anyone do that."
'Fit right in,' teammates say
A midfielder, Keeling is among the leading scorers on Long Island, with 12 goals and nine assists. Suffolk high school teams and spectators have gotten used to Keeling, who also plays for a travel team -- the East End Lady Gems, which Hannigan also coaches. Crowds often gather and the murmurs can be heard. "I'll notice as they're watching," Keeling said, "but it doesn't really matter."
"I think it's good for field hockey," Rocky Point coach Katie Bittner said. Her team, a division rival, has faced Southampton twice this season. "Some of my kids play on his travel team and they say he's a polite, classy kid."
Last season on the JV team, Keeling had to wear a kilt, as his teammates do, to avoid a uniform violation. A few of his friends cracked jokes, he said, "but I just laughed it off.''
That's no longer an issue. Before the season, in preparation for Keeling's promotion to varsity, Hannigan had the team's uniform bottoms switched to black shorts.
Southampton teammates say Keeling is like a little brother.
"He just fit right in," Tara Watson said. "You have to work on chemistry, but there wasn't as much effort required as I thought. . . . He's made it easy."
Southampton High School field hockey
Weight: 82 pounds
Born: May 5, 1998
Year: Eighth grade at Southampton Intermediate School
Scoring: Has scored 21 points (12 goals and nine assists)
Miscellaneous: The Pilaros moved to Dublin, Ireland, in October 1998... Starred in two fifth-grade plays ("All My Sons" and "A Christmas Carol")... The family moved back to Southampton in 2010... Siblings: Twin brothers Chris and Finnegan, 11, and Tristan, 7