They also disagree with the notion that Pilaro is taking away opportunities from other girls. Hannigan pointed out that there are never tryouts for the varsity squad, so other players are not being cut from the team in order to make room for Pilaro. Hannigan also added that the process for handing out postseason awards, like the All-Conference recognition Pilaro received, doesn’t operate such that a set number of awards is handed out each year. Rather, the coaches who vote on the awards hand out accolades based on the number of players they think are deserving; thus, the number fluctuates from year to year.
The Pilaro family and Hannigan have several issues with the way the decision was handled by Section XI. They feel that the explanation, that Keeling’s skill level creates an adverse effect on female opportunity in the sport, is vague and subjective. Most of the members of the committee have never seen Keeling play in a live game, Ms. Pilaro pointed out, and saw only video footage of him playing in a win against an East Hampton team that missed the playoffs and finished eighth out of 12 teams in the division. Pilaro scored three goals in that 6-1 win.
“They’ve never defined how he adversely affects players,” Ms. Pilaro said, adding that while her son led the team in goals, she believes there are better players than him on the team. She pointed to Tara Watson, a defensive player who shined for the Lady Mariners but was not a goal scorer.
“He’s not the fastest and he’s not the strongest,” Ms. Pilaro said. “He does have good stick skills, but are they too advanced? There are a lot of people in the league who are better than him.”
Ms. Pilaro believes that not allowing her son to play is not only a form of reverse discrimination but also is offensive to the large number of females who play the sport. And she’s not alone in that assertion. Taylor Mills, an All-County player from Sayville, spoke out on Pilaro’s behalf in a Newsday article, and Port Jefferson field hockey coach Deb Edgar-Brown said she believes that Pilaro’s presence on the team has a positive impact for not only his teammates but all players in the county.
“A lot of people are calling it reverse discrimination, but a lot of girls feel that it’s discrimination,” Ms. Pilaro said. “The fact that Section XI views them as inferior and that they can’t handle playing against [Keeling] is offensive. It’s minimizing girls by saying that.”
Ms. Pilaro said her attitude would be similar to that of Mills if she were a high school player competing against Keeling: “Her attitude is, ‘I can play against him. I’m happy to because I’m better than he is.’”
Ms. Edgar-Brown, whose daughter plays travel field hockey both with and against Pilaro, said his presence in the sport has a positive impact, because he makes everyone around him better, in much the way any player with strong skills would do. She said the idea that he is potentially taking away a starting spot from a girl shouldn’t be viewed as an injustice but rather should motivate players to work harder.
“If he took away your spot, maybe you should get in the gym more and work harder,” she said in a phone interview.
Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips said he is disappointed with the decision as well, for various reasons. “It goes against everything you tell your kids,” he said. “You want them to work hard in the offseason and get better. Now, he’s improved, and he’s being penalized.
“I personally don’t see the adverse effect,” he continued. “I don’t see a dominant kid who is going to dribble around girls and nobody is going to get the ball from him, and he’ll just completely take over every game. And he’s obviously not a physical threat with his height and size. There have been other females who have been better than Keeling, and they were dominant, and we don’t ask them to stop playing.”
For his part, Keeling—who also wrestles and plays lacrosse at Southampton for the junior high teams—finds the situation “annoying and frustrating,” but he says he will remain dedicated to his teammates no matter what decision is ultimately made.
“I’m just hoping I can play for one more year,” he said. “I would definitely still practice with the girls, even if I can’t play in games. I’d be the team manager. Field hockey is my favorite sport, and I just love hanging out with them.”
Keeling’s passion for the game, and his dreams to one day be part of the U.S. Olympic men’s field hockey team, are all part of the reason why the Pilaro family is determined to continue the battle.