The only male high school varsity field hockey player on Long Island has been denied permission to play next fall. The reason? He's just too good.
The mixed competition committee for Section XI, Suffolk County's governing body of high school sports, has ruled that Keeling Pilaro, an eighth-grader who was Southampton High School's leading scorer last fall, cannot return to the field next season because he's too dominant a player to compete against girls.
Latest HS sports stories
The school and family's initial appeal of the ruling was turned down April 18, and a second appeal will be heard next month.
By the rules, "A boy can play, but he can't be the dominant player on the field," said Ward Melville's Erin Blaney, one of three Suffolk athletic directors on the committee, which also includes the field hockey coordinator. There are no high school boys' field hockey teams on Long Island.
The same committee last summer approved Pilaro, now 13, to play at the varsity level for the 2011 season. He finished 11th in points on Long Island with 21 and was named all-conference.
The panel had determined last summer that his size -- 4 feet, 6 inches tall and 82 pounds -- wouldn't put girls at a physical disadvantage. He has since grown 2 inches, but that wasn't a factor in the panel's decision this time, Suffolk athletic officials said.
"Before, they said I didn't have a physical advantage, and I'm still not even 5 feet yet," said Pilaro, who learned to play the sport as a young boy when his family lived in Ireland. "Now they're judging me based on my skills, but everyone has a chance to play in winter and spring and improve their skills. Maybe I would've been better off if I didn't win an [all-conference] award."
According to the rules of the Commissioner of Education on Mixed Competition, "the regulations, in dealing with adverse effects, protects the ability of the female competitors to compete successfully," said Nina Van Erk, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association's executive director.
Section XI director Edward Cinelli, who was not on the panel, said Tuesday the committee "determined that he's very skilled. That was the determining factor in the decision not to approve him."
Blaney said the committee's decision was based on the language in the committee's handbook.
"We went through line by line and, initially, an 'adverse effect' would seem to be interpreted as one regarding a physical advantage or safety, but there's more to that. It could mean keeping a girl from getting playing time; taking away from the female's ability to garner a postseason award, etc."
Blaney said she sympathizes with Pilaro, but the panel had an "obligation" to follow the rules, Blaney said.
According to a letter after the hearing from Section XI Appeals Committee chairman James Wright, the committee reviewed video of a game in which Pilaro had a goal and two assists. Pilaro showed "superior stick play in comparison to the great majority of those girls against whom he was competing. . . . Keeling did, by way of his skill, significantly and adversely impact the proverbial 'even playing field.' "
Southampton athletic director Darren Phillips said the school was granted another appeal hearing, which is scheduled for May 15, when the case will be brought to the Section XI athletic council, a group of school personnel. Phillips said he isn't sure what else can be done if the appeal fails.
Port Jefferson coach Debbie Brown, whose daughter plays on a travel team with Pilaro, called the decision "completely wrong" and said, "The idea that he's too talented and it's taking away from the girls is nonsense."
Sayville's Taylor Mills, who led Long Island with 21 goals, said the ruling is "ridiculous," adding, "I think it's completely outrageous to deny him the ability to play because they think he's more skilled than some girls." When Pilaro was less than a year old, the family moved from Southampton to Ireland, where he began playing field hockey, a popular men's sport there, at age 5. The Pilaros moved back to Southampton in June 2010, and he was granted permission to play on the junior varsity team that fall.
Last summer, he was re-evaluated and approved again before a promotion to varsity.
Pilaro's parents, Andrew and Fairley, said they are considering legal action should their son not be allowed to play.
"How do advanced skills prohibit others from participating successfully?" Fairley Pilaro said. "If a girl in the league was determined to have advanced skills, why would she not be accused of having the same adverse effects as Keeling?"
Keeling Pilaro is hopeful he'll win the next appeal and can return to the field as a high school freshman.
"I just want to play," he said.