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Oct 26, 2010 10:47 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Forsaking Norms, For The Love Of The Sport

Oct 26, 2010 10:47 AM

William Keeling Pilaro has been the big man on campus at Southampton High School this fall, which might seem odd, considering he’s not yet 5 feet tall, he’s only 12 years old, and he plays on a team with girls.

The seventh-grader has been making junior varsity field hockey games must-see events this fall, prompting varsity coaches from opposing teams to linger to watch him play, and even drawing the attention of Southampton varsity football players, who cheered him on and showered him with shouts of “Phenom!” at a game early in October.

Pilaro was born in the States but moved with his family to Ireland when he was a baby, his father’s job taking the family there for a period of more than a decade. Upon moving into the Southampton School District this summer from Ireland, the diminutive Pilaro—whose parents were born and raised in the United States—was dead set on playing field hockey, a sport he grew to love while playing on club teams outside of Dublin.

In Ireland, and many other parts of the world, field hockey has just as much appeal for boys as it does for girls, and is equally enjoyed by both genders in much the same manner as soccer or basketball. Pilaro was an avid athlete and played other sports, but he had the most skill and passion for field hockey.

During an interview at his parents’ Southampton home earlier in the month, Pilaro admitted that he was surprised to find out that field hockey is strictly considered a girls sport in America, despite the fact that it is an Olympic sport for both men and women. But it did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for playing.

Becoming a member of the junior varsity team, however, required a level of dedication and perseverence that even his parents were initially unprepared for.

Before the season began, the Pilaros—Keeling, his father, Andrew and mother Fairley—along with Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips and Southampton varsity field hockey coach Kim Hannigan, had to attend a special hearing with executives from Section XI, the governing body of high school sports in Suffolk County. The Section XI panel included Executive Director Ed Cinelli, as well as Karen Kauer, the county’s field hockey chairperson. The Pilaro family had to make their case for their son joining the girls team. Ultimately, the committee decided to allow Pilaro to play.

The individual hearing is a standard procedure for any male student-athlete who wants to play a girls sport, according to Cinelli, and the decision of the committee is only good for one season. If Pilaro wants to play again next year, he will have to go through the same process.

Cinelli said several factors are taken into account when determining whether to grant permission to a boy to play a girls sport. “His fitness, his maturation, his experience, and his ability and size are all taken into consideration,” he said.

The most important factor, Cinelli said, has to do with maintaining a level playing field.

“We may decline permission upon finding that such participation would have a significant adverse effect on the opportunity of females to participate successfully in the interschool competition in that sport,” he said, stressing that the key phrase is “participation of a male having a significant adverse affect.”

At this point, Pilaro doesn’t need to worry about being declined permission to play based on his size or strength—in fact, he is usually one of the smallest players on the field. But the Pilaros said the committee expressed concern about their son’s skill level and seemed to deem it a negative.

Although he’s only 12, Pilaro is clearly one of the better players on the team—although Hannigan, Southampton’s varsity coach, stops short of echoing the football team in calling him a “phenom.” She said that while playing on club teams from an early age in Ireland gave Pilaro an advantage, and he has improved rapidly throughout the year, she would not have taken him on the varsity team, even if she had been allowed to. The fact that the committee was wary of Pilaro’s skill level, and the fact that it might give him some sort of advantage, did not sit well with his parents.

“We said, ‘So, would you rather have a kid who doesn’t care about the sport and isn’t passionate about it?’” Mr. Pilaro said.

According to the Pilaros, the committee also expressed concern about how Pilaro would be viewed by his peers in school and whether teasing or taunting would be an issue. They wanted to know how Pilaro would handle a situation where students were making fun of him for playing field hockey on a girls team.

His answer? “I told them I wouldn’t care,” Pilaro said matter-of-factly.

Pilaro does not appear to be shackled with the weight of self-doubt and insecurity that most adolescents suffer from, particularly during their awkward pre-teen years. In fact, there isn’t much awkward about him at all, both in terms of his athleticism and his attitude toward the attention he has garnered. To him, field hockey is simply the sport he loves most, and he has proven thus far that he doesn’t have a problem with breaking stereotypes.

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