Suffolk County sports officials on Tuesday decided to let a local boy play field hockey on the Southampton girls team for at least one more season, despite earlier worries that his advanced skill diminished opportunities for female players.
"I'm so excited that I can play with the team," said Southampton's Keeling Pilaro on Tuesday afternoon. "They're like my family."
Section XI, the governing body for school sports in Suffolk, made the decision at a special meeting in Smithtown, after originally denying the eighth-grader the opportunity to play on the varsity team again this coming fall, a decision the appealed. The Pilaro family had if Keeling was told he couldn't play.
“We were ecstatic — just really glad for Keeling more than anything,” said Darren Phillips, Southampton’s athletic director. “It’s fair and the right decision.”
Phillips said Keeling might be the first boy in more than 30 years — or possibly ever — to be approved to play on a girls team in Section XI.
Keeling also competes on the junior high wrestling and lacrosse teams, in addition to field hockey, and even more sports outside of school, Phillips said.
Section XI plans to review Keeling’s situation on a year-to-year basis because one of the concerns is that as boys become physically bigger, they could pose a threat of injury to female players. But it is unclear what the height and weight cutoff would be, he added.
Keeling is 4 feet and 9 inches tall and weighs 82 pounds, Keeling's mother, Fairley Pilaro, said, adding that once he has a growth spurt she will not insist that Keeling continue to play on the team.
She said that when Keeling was initially denied, her maternal instincts kicked in.
"Ultimately, I was a mother protecting her child," she said. "I felt Keeling had been wrongly accused of having an adverse affect on the sport and on other players' ability to succeed."
Keeling, who turned 14 years old this month, aspires to one day play on the U.S. men’s national field hockey team and qualify for the Olympics.
Pilaro said her son was born in New York City but lived in Ireland from when he was 6 months old until the family returned to the United States two years ago. In Ireland, she explained, field hockey is part of the physical education curriculum and he also competed on his school's team and in a league. "He's been playing since he was 4 or 5," she said.
He has played with the Southampton girls for the past two seasons.
“We are relieved that a young boy with a passion for a sport that is not always accessible to young men in our country can pursue his interest and develop his talent without a protracted controversy that would be distracting and disheartening," Southampton Superintendent J. Richard Boyes said in a statement.
Boyes said that, while acknowledging mixed competition raises issues of ensuring physical safety, “Keeling by all accounts fits in well and does not present an unfair or adverse presence to his teammates and competitors.”