SMITHTOWN, N.Y. – The biggest goal of Keeling Pilaro's field hockey career happened far from an athletic field on Tuesday.
An athletics committee determined the 13-year-old boy can keep playing on the girls' varsity team at Southampton High School, at least for one more season. The decision at an appeals hearing Tuesday reverses earlier rulings that claimed Keeling's skills as a field hockey player, which he developed growing up in Dublin, Ireland, had developed to a level superior to those of girls.
"I was jumping up and down; I was so excited when I heard," the youngster said in a telephone interview about an hour after the decision was announced by an attorney for the athletics committee. "I can play!"
Kevin Seaman, the attorney for the committee that oversees public school athletics in Suffolk County, said panelists determined that Keeling's continued participation on the team ultimately would not have "a significant adverse effect" on girls' opportunity to participate in interschool competition. That was the same criteria used earlier this year when officials for the committee said Keeling's skills had exceeded those of his female teammates and competitors.
Reporters were not permitted into the closed meeting.
Seaman said the vote to allow Keeling to play was not unanimous, but he declined to break it down. About two dozen officials deliberated for about 40 minutes after the youngster and his mother and their attorneys presented arguments for allowing him to continue. The boy's high school field hockey coach also attended.
Officials previously cited the fact that Keeling was named to an all-conference team after scoring 10 goals and eight assists as an eighth-grader playing on the Southampton varsity last season. But the boy's supporters said another girl also made the all-conference team also was an eighth-grader. They noted that Keeling's skills did not earn him the more prestigious all-county honors, and also pointed out that Southampton's squad finished in fourth place in its conference last year.
In order to play with the girls after moving to New York from Ireland, Keeling had to get permission from Suffolk's mixed-competition committee, which screens players who want to compete on teams of the opposite sex. There have been several occasions where girls have been approved to play football, wrestle or compete in other traditional boys sports, but Keeling is believed to be the first boy to play alongside girls on Long Island.
An attorney for the Pilaro family said he considered filing a federal civil rights lawsuit had the ruling not gone in his client's favor.
The United States is one of the rare places in the world where boys do not regularly play field hockey.
Chris Clements, the national men's coach for USA Field Hockey, said in an interview last week with the AP that he thought the young teenager should be permitted to continue playing.
"Maybe by the time he gets to be a senior, it could be argued that there is a difference, but I would say right now he fits in just fine," Clements said.