Pilaro benched for being too good

After two years playing alongside girls, male field hockey player ruled ineligible

Updated: May 16, 2012, 3:54 PM ET
By Mike Grimala | ESPNHS

Keeling Pilaro doesn't understand why he's not being allowed to play the sport he loves.

The eighth-grader from Southampton, N.Y., has played in the Southampton High School field hockey program for the past two seasons, the only boy on what are typically all-girls squads. But on March 30, the local high school athletics governing body, Section XI, ruled that Pilaro would no longer be allowed to compete, effective next season.

Citing a state education law that allows it to bar males from girls' activities if their participation has a "significant adverse effect upon the opportunity of females to participate successfully," the section's mixed competition committee banned Pilaro from taking the field -- essentially because he's too good.

The Pilaro family is fighting the ruling, with a final appeal hearing set for May 15.

"I was shocked," said Pilaro. "The last two years they let me play, then all of a sudden they just reversed it. It just didn't make sense."

Born in Southampton but raised in Ireland, he has been playing field hockey for most of his life. It's considered a boys' sport in Ireland, and Pilaro dreams of playing for the U.S. men's national team in the Olympics someday.

His family moved back to New York in 2010, and as a seventh-grader Pilaro sought permission to play for the girls' team at Southampton because of a lack of boys' field hockey options in the area. Section XI granted him permission to play on the Southampton JV team, with the stipulation that he would have to go before the organization's mixed competition committee each year to renew his eligibility.

After a successful season for the JV team, Pilaro once again got the OK from Section XI and was even bumped up to the varsity team this past fall. He played well, posting a team-high 10 goals -- not dominant by any means, but good enough to earn All-Conference recognition.

Unfortunately for Pilaro, that was apparently too much.

At 4-foot-9, 82 pounds, Pilaro doesn't appear to have a size or strength advantage over the girls in his league, and most of his competitors are older than him. In fact, several opposing players and coaches have submitted letters to Section XI in support of Pilaro's case -- a striking turn of events 40 years after Title IX, which mandates that girls and boys should have an opportunity to play a sport if a school offers it to the opposite sex, was signed into law.

"As far as I know, he's gotten nothing but support from everyone," said Southampton athletic director Darren Phillips. "The girls on the team see him as a little brother, and they appreciate what he brings to the team."

The Pilaro family has hired an attorney to present their case at next week's appeal. Because there are no tryouts for the Southampton field hockey team and no players are cut, they don't believe Pilaro's presence on the team negatively impacts any of his teammates. Multiple attempts to reach Section XI representatives were unsuccessful.

Pilaro says his friends have always supported his field hockey efforts, and that he doesn't really get teased about playing on the girls' team. In fact, his pals often form a cheering section at his games.

The camaraderie is just one reason he hopes the committee overturns its decision and allows him to compete again next season. But mostly, Pilaro just enjoys playing his favorite sport.

"I've been playing since I was 5," he said. "I love it a lot. I used to play every single day when I was in Ireland, so I hope they let me keep playing."

Mike Grimala is an associate editor for ESPNHS. Follow him on Twitter at @MGrimalaESPN »