Guest Spot: Riverhead’s athletic programs deserve a great reputation

One day last month I received phone calls regarding a morning WRIV radio program. It appeared that host Bruce Tria was taking a call from a weekly caller who keeps him informed about Riverhead School District news. On this particular show, she said one of the varsity football players was told he would not play if he didn’t participate in fundraising efforts.

In response, I made a phone call to that same person to ask her if she in fact made these comments on the radio.

Indeed, she verified her statements on that broadcast.

A perplexing coincidence was that this same story was told to me when I was a member of the Riverhead Board of Education by a fellow board member, now off the board, who did not raise money or permit her children to participate in fundraising efforts.

One of our football coaches called Mr. Tria the next day, stating he has been on the football staff for over 10 years and has never heard a comment like that reported nor could he even imagine a situation where playing time depended on fundraising. Anyone who truly knows head varsity football coach Leif Shay and the football staff can verify the professionalism, organization and quality football program that is the hallmark of our athletic program pride. The players are treated with respect and, in turn, they are respectful. As actions speak louder than words, this program has won both the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Scholar Athlete team award and Section XI Sportsmanship award on several occasions.

This incident brings to mind another commentary made by two school board members at the May 26, 2009, board meeting and in a subsequent column written by News-Review sports editor Bob Liepa. The column was headlined “A sad commentary on coaches.”

The issue revolved around tame, plain comments from then-varsity and varsity assistant baseball coaches. The spring 2009 baseball season did not end as they had hoped. According to the original game article, the coaches stated: “We beat ourselves up; our team just did not click.” Mr. Liepa’s column later pointed out that no inappropriate words or harsh criticism was directed at any individual players.

I was on the school board for 12 years, the last two as president. I read a statement at the beginning of each meeting that stated: “Comments will not be permitted in open session both for or against employees, students or Board of Education members.” Yet, Mr. Liepa’s column continued: “Angela Devito took issue with quotes in my story attributed to Coach Hackal and Assistant Coach Todd Van Scoy and then spoke out against them publicly.” These comments came in direct disregard of New York State School Law as well as Board of Education policy  No. 1440: “Complaints about school personnel.”

I have known Scott Hackal for many years. As a teacher, person and coach, he is the best of the best, including his team winning both the NYSPHSAA scholar team and Section XI Sportsmanship award in the 2009 season. I was not on the school board in the spring of 2009, but if I had been, I would have stopped Ms. Devito and Ms. Prete’s comments and apologized to Mr. Hackal and Mr. Van Scoy. There’s an old saying: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Playing at the varsity and junior varsity level is not a right, it is earned through talent and hard work. Ninety percent of our coaches are also certified teachers with master’s degrees. Grading a test or report is no different than grading athletes on their performance. The coach determines who will start by judging which players give the team the best chance to win; the rest of the team competes as part of the game plan. All athletes are a very important part of a team. They all receive accolades when championships are won or spoken to as a team.

Many of our student athletes receive partial or full scholarships to college. Riverhead has a strong co-curricular policy, which is adhered to by our coaches, ensuring their courses of study are paramount. A majority of our varsity teams win the New York State Scholar Athlete team award, including this past winter season, when all the varsity athletic teams were recognized for such a distinction.

If you have a chance, ride past our playing fields that are usually teeming with athletes. Even watch our crew team rowing the Peconic. It’s all such a positive sight to see.

Our athletic director, Bill Groth, initiated and won a grant from Coca-Cola over 10 years ago for over $420,000, which is shared with the music and photography departments. PTO and booster clubs over the years have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for our students, schools and fields. Athletic boosters and coaches often contribute to camps, clothing, equipment or other things many athletes can’t afford, without any expectations, fanfare or publicity.

I, for one, am proud of the contribution and spirit that our students, teachers, coaches, district employees, PTOs and booster clubs bring this school and community.

Ms. Gassert is a former Riverhead school board member and president, PTO president and PTO Council president and an athletic booster club member. She lives in Riverhead.