A scheduling error in violation of a Section XI rule has resulted in the suspension for the rest of the season of East Hampton High School's varsity softball coach, Lou Reale.
Reale and the East Hampton School District's athletic director, Joe Vas, described the error as an honest mistake, "but," said Vas during a conversation following a meeting Monday morning with Section XI's appeals committee, which numbers eight athletic directors, "a rule is a rule -- it's very clear."
Section XI, which oversees public high school sports in Suffolk County, limits teams to a certain number of contests -- 20 in the case of softball -- and, should that limit be exceeded, "the penalty," according to the section's handbook, "is team ineligibility from the date of the violation for the rest of the season, including playoffs."
In explaining what had happened, Reale said that he had become used to the fact that Amityville, one of the schools in East Hampton's league, would each year fail to field a softball team, thus enabling him to add two nonleague contests.
"You play each team in your league twice -- that's 12 games, and one game with each of the seven teams in the league above us," said the veteran coach, who is among the state's top five or six in the career wins category. "Since Amityville was always dropping out, leaving us with six teams in League VI, I got used to scheduling three nonleaguers, usually with Pierson, Connetquot, and Bayport-Blue Point, where I used to coach."
"What I failed to take into account was that John Glenn, a team that moved down into our league this year, had taken over Amityville's schedule. It was my fault, I'd gotten used to things as they had been and I just didn't think when I made out the schedule."
"He couldn't get Bayport this year," said Vas, "so initially Lou put in Hampton Bays as a scrimmage. That was fine, but later it got changed to a nonleague game, which put us over the limit. We would have been two over the limit had I not spotted the Connetquot nonleague game and had it scratched. Lou didn't realize his mistake until after the Hampton Bays game had been played. He phoned me and told me. I admire him for doing so. He practices what he preaches to his players, which is always to be accountable for your actions. It was an honest mistake -- he had no intention of gaining any advantage."
Under Section XI's initial ruling, according to Reale, he was suspended for one game -- the one played recently at Harborfields -- was told East Hampton would have to forfeit its last regular season game, with Rocky Point, and was told that the team would be banned from the playoffs.
He and Vas appealed at Section XI's office in Smithtown Monday morning, and the result, said Vas, was that "Lou was suspended for the rest of the season -- he can't coach games, he can't hold practices, and he's forbidden from having any contact with the team -- but the team can qualify for the playoffs." It needs two more wins in its final six games to do so.
East Hampton's league record as of Tuesday was 8-4. In recent games the Bonackers shut out Harborfields 15-0, lost 7-1 to Kings Park, whose top pitcher, Lindsay Taylor, Reale rates as the county's best, and came back to defeat Eastport-South Manor 8-7 in the bottom of the seventh inning after having trailed 5-0 after five innings and 7-4 going into their last at-bat.
Players and parents were devastated by the news, which circulated through the crowd at Monday's game here with Hauppauge, a game that was cut short in the fifth inning by the mercy rule with Hauppauge leading 13-0.
One parent, when asked how the girls were taking it, said, "Terribly. Can't you tell by the way they're playing? They're flat."
"We're hoping to pressure Joe Vas into appealing this further," he added, bristling. "I don't know much about labor matters, but does Section XI have the power to effectively fire a coach? Yes, the team can stay in contention for the playoffs, but if they make the playoffs they'll be without their leader! I don't know how that serves the kids' interests, as they make out. . . . Have you ever made a mistake at work?"
Yet Vas said the appeals committee's ruling was the best that could be hoped for given the circumstances. The only alternative, he said, when questioned, "would be not to suspend Lou but the team doesn't play in the playoffs."
In Monday's give-and-take mention was made, said Vas, of a recent precedent involving the Sayville and Babylon girls lacrosse teams, whose coaches appealed after apparently violating the section's over-the-limit rule. The result in that case, said Vas, mirrored the punishment meted out to Reale: The teams were allowed to contend for the playoffs, but the coaches were suspended for the remainder of the season.
When asked if in that case the coaches had not initially been forthcoming, as Reale had been, the athletic director said, "I don't know all the details, but I didn't get the impression that those coaches were trying to dodge the rule."
Ed Cinelli, Section XI's executive director, was not immediately available for comment.
"He'll be back," Vas said of Reale. "He would like us to move forward. He's developed one of the best programs in this school. He's one of the best coaches I've ever worked with."
Meanwhile, Vas said, he was working on finding Erin Abran, Reale's former assistant, who is now the head coach, an assistant of her own. "We need to support Erin and the kids," the A.D. said. "We need to pick ourselves up."
Ed Cinelli, Section XI’s executive director, said Tuesday afternoon, when asked about the precedent cited by the section’s appeals committee, that the cases “were very, very similar,” although he had been alerted to the girls lacrosse teams’ possible violation by way of an e-mail, he said.
In contrast, Lou Reale had reported it himself once he realized he’d played an extra game.
When Cinelli relayed the e-mailed accusation to Sayville and Babylon’s athletic directors, “they were shocked,” he said, “and admitted a mistake had been made. The coaches and their athletic directors appealed and a decision was made to allow the students to continue to play so as not to hurt them.” The coaches, as in Reale’s case, were suspended for the rest of the season.
Asked if there were a history of similar rules violations, Cinelli said, “I don’t recall anything of this nature involving playoff-caliber teams lately. It’s unfortunate to have the coaches of three playoff teams in this situation. I’ve known Lou for a lot of years.”
Cinelli added that he didn’t think that the coaches involved had any intent to gain an advantage as the result of playing an extra game.
Asked if there were a “higher court” to which a further appeal could be addressed, Cinelli answered in the affirmative. “This was the first level of appeal. The school can appeal the decision to the section’s athletic council.”