In Barker, a tiny upstate town about 50 miles north of Buffalo, they know Keeling Pilaro only from news stories and highlight reels. But Saturday at the state field hockey tournament in Syracuse, they will get to see up close the Southampton freshman who is the sport's only male participant at the varsity level on Long Island.
To that they say . . .
"The simple fact that it's a boy might be an issue with some people not accustomed to it, especially if he's making an impact," said Barker High School coach Jeff Costello, whose 17-0-1 team faces Southampton in a Class C semifinal.
"He's definitely an offensive threat, but my biggest concern is if he's physically dominant," Costello said of Pilaro, who is 4-10, 85 pounds. "I'll have to reserve judgment, but he doesn't look imposing in the videos."
According to New York's rules on mixed competition, boys are allowed to compete in girls sports so long as they don't have an adverse effect. Pilaro, 14, was approved by Suffolk's mixed-competition committee to play in 2010 and 2011 on the basis he wasn't imposing. But last season, his 21 points ranked 11th in Long Island and the committee denied him permission to compete this fall on the grounds his skill level adversely affected girls' "opportunities to compete and succeed."
That decision was appealed and overturned in May, and the Mariners (10-8) have gone on a surprise run to claim their first Long Island championship since 2003.
Pilaro has only 12 points this year, but did score the deciding goal in a 2-0 victory over Pierson-Bridgehampton on Tuesday in the Suffolk final.
Keeling's mother, Fairley Pilaro, said her experience sitting in the stands at games "is people say, 'Oh, he's cute.' But if he plays well and their team loses, it's, 'A boy shouldn't be playing.' "
She added that Keeling and his teammates "take it all with a grain of salt and are only focused on winning."
Sharon Sarsen, whose Lakeland team has won three consecutive Class B titles, said she doesn't expect the reception upstate for Southampton to be negative.
"He's been playing all year so he must've passed all qualifications," said Bev Hooper, the state field hockey coordinator. "And he's not the first boy to do it, so I don't see it being an issue."
In 1996, Southampton lost in the state final to a Schuylerville team with an eighth-grade defender -- Jarred Martin.
"He made an impact," former Southampton coach Chris Holden said of Martin, "but I was far more concerned with his sister [Abby Martin], who went on to be an All-American at North Carolina."
Jarred Martin, now an assistant coach at Duke, said he can relate to Pilaro. Most opponents were accepting of him, he said, until after his freshman year when Schuylerville won a second state title and he grew to 5-10.
"We can't afford to be overly concerned with another player and have it take away from what we do, regardless of who it is," said Costello, who didn't play field hockey but has coached for 17 years. "Win or lose, it won't be because we were distracted."