A team of bright Long Island students is disqualified from defending its school's state Science Olympiad title this weekend because of a snow-related delay of its $150 registration fee, combined with telephone calls from the contest's state director to the wrong contact person.
Members of the 15-student squad at Ward Melville High School -- a perennial power in the competition, having gone to the national tourney every year since 2009 -- called Tuesday for changes in policies they believe led to their exclusion.
"We don't believe this is an appropriate way to punish an administrative error," said team member Alan Wei, a senior. "We put a lot of heart into Science Olympiad -- it's more than just a competition to us."
The Olympiad, slated to draw 51 teams from Long Island and across the state to Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale starting Friday, challenges teams to undertake such tasks as identifying rocks and minerals and investigating a mock crime scene.
The Ward Melville team had planned to head to the state tourney as defending champions. They took first place among 46 Suffolk County teams last month in the regional tournament.
That was before a most unscientific chain of events.
They learned March 1 that the registration check to Harold Miller, state director of the Science Olympiad, did not arrive at Miller's address in upstate Valhalla by the Feb. 28 deadline.
February's snowfall, in part, was to blame, district officials said. The work of a district auditor who reviews outgoing checks was backlogged because of a snow day and a delayed school opening in mid-February. That meant the check was not mailed until the next time the auditor reviewed outgoing checks -- two weeks later, they said.
Still, school officials said, Miller is expected to twice call a team's contact person before the deadline if he has not received payment, what they said is his long-standing protocol. But Miller left two messages at the home of a former Science Olympiad coach rather than contacting Steven Malusa, who has coached the school's teams since 2006, they said.
Kathleen Rocklein, who is retired and assists the team on a volunteer basis, was visiting grandchildren in Florida and only received Miller's messages when she returned Friday, she said Tuesday. Rocklein was listed as the contact person for a separate Ward Melville team that did not qualify for the state finals, school officials said.
Miller, in an email Tuesday night, said Ward Melville's invitation to compete was withdrawn because registration materials did not arrive until the week after the deadline.
"We are always disappointed when a fine school does not submit its materials in a timely manner," Miller wrote. "We need the registration materials at least two weeks prior to the competition so that we can complete the many tasks necessary to conduct a state tournament."
Miller also noted that Ward Melville had three teams competing at the regional level, and under state policy any member of the three teams may be chosen to compete at the state level. He said he picked Rocklein's name out of the three original registration forms, as opposed to Malusa's, because he has met her over the years at various tournaments and recognized her name.
"I had no way of knowing she was actually retired and was not an active coach who could get a message to the people responsible for doing the registration," he said in another email.
The team mailed a group letter to Miller last week, seeking to refute the disqualification and hoping for a policy change to prevent teams from being affected in the future.
"It's the students being affected," Ward Melville Principal Alan Baum said, "when it's adults who dropped the ball."
Wei said upstate Bethlehem High School was disqualified for late payment last year, as was Great Neck South High School in 2011.
But the Ward Melville team members believe their case is different because Miller called the wrong contact person.
They also said their disqualification negatively affects all of the teams competing.
"A tournament without the first-place team isn't a fair one," junior Jake Welde said.
Fifteen Long Island teams -- including Nassau County regional winners Great Neck South High School and Syosset High School -- will compete in the state finals.
Ward Melville's team finished fifth among high schools nationally last year.
With Joie Tyrrell