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Roadblock for independent athletes in Nassau Section VIII

Beginning with the 2010 fall season, Nassau Section VIII will no longer allow independent athletes - what the section calls "incomplete teams" - to compete with established high school teams or on the county and state championship level, a high-ranking Section VIII and state athletic official said last week.

It is a move that has angered some parents whose children may no longer have an athletic outlet beginning in September.

Section VIII district representatives voted for the measure by an overwhelming majority early in the school year, said NYSPHCAA president and vice-president of Section VIII boys athletics Patrick Pizzarelli. Pizzarelli did not provide particulars of the meeting, but said that "it wasn't a close vote" and that concerns were primarily financial. Schools who take on independent athletes (doing so voluntarily) often incur extra expenses to support the larger team.

Independent athletes compete on the individual level with other high school teams in such sports as swimming, gymnastics and fencing, often because their own schools don't support the programs. The loss of the independent athlete provision may will likely affect athletes in lower-income school districts that don't have the money for so-called minor sports.

Instead, Pizzarelli said, schools that don't have certain sports will be encouraged to join with other districts as combined teams. Suffolk Section XI will continue to allow independent athletes to compete.

Pizzarelli said that some schools don't form teams because they know that athletes in their district can take advantage of the provision to compete as independents by being allowed to join another district's team. There are some costs associated to an independent athlete's home school, but Pizzarelli said schools who don't form a team, "are getting a free ride."

"You don't have to buy any equipment and you never have to host a meet," Pizzarelli said. "It really wasn't fair to other schools."

Jeff Greenberg, whose son Justin attends East Rockaway High School, asked the school for permission to allow his son to compete as an independent shooter in riflery with another undetermined school in December 2008. Justin has shot rifle for three years as part of the county Police Department PAL Junior League. According to Greenberg, after several months of conversations, including exchanges where he said he would pay for equipment, fees and supervise the sessions, the school turned down his request.

East Rockaway athletic director Dominick Vulpis declined to comment on the situation or to give a reason for the district's ruling.

Greenberg had filed a formal notice to bring the matter before the East Rockaway School District superintendent at the beginning of the school year and was preparing a lawsuit. But before the matter reached the superintendent, Section VIII told him that it had ruled to do away with independent athletes.

"All you want is the best for your kid," Greenberg said. "There has to be a way for a kid to compete if the district doesn't have the sport."

Greenberg isn't the only person bothered by the Section VIII decision.

Andy Morris, who heads the Oceanside gymnastics team, said moves to limit independent athletes will likely hurt students.

"I disagree with it wholeheartedly," Morris said of the vote, which was taken Sept. 24. "Why eliminate that type of talent?"

Now, if a district decides not to form its own team or a combined team with another district, independent athletes will not be able to compete in high school events, Pizzarelli said.

It comes as sobering news for past independent athletes - such as Jessica Panza, the gymnast from Island Trees who in 2009 took the state overall title. She later received a full gymnastics scholarship from North Carolina State.

"Just because I don't have a team in my school shouldn't mean that I can't compete for my county," said Panza, who now competes for N.C. State. Panza spent her high school gymnastics career affiliated with Bethpage-Plainview. That chance "got my name out there and got me recognition," said Panza, who had been a club gymnast. "If you're competing, you want to compete against the best."

Pizzarelli said that the ruling benefits Section VIII and shouldn't adversely affect athletes to an undue degree.

"No one says every school should have every sport just because you have one or two kids who want to compete," Pizzarelli said. This is true, he said, "especially in these budgetary times."

Morris said some of his greatest gymnasts have been independents. He recalled Melissa Butchin, then from Wantagh, who joined two of his premier gymnasts in the state meet nearly a decade ago.

"I disagree with a lot of things that Section VIII athletics is doing and this is just another sign of it," he said. "Why do anything that would take away [students'] opportunities?"

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