Lacrosse legend out after 19 years as SWR coach

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | The Shoreham-Wading River lacrosse team watches on as a resident voices his support for ousted coach Tom Rotanz.
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | The Shoreham-Wading River lacrosse team watches on as a resident voices his support for ousted coach Tom Rotanz at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, Tom Rotanz won’t be on the sidelines with the Shoreham-Wading River varsity boys lacrosse team this spring.

Superintendent Steven Cohen confirmed Tuesday night he will not recommend Mr. Rotanz to be reinstated as coach and said the district has posted the position and other coaching jobs in the district as available.

Mr. Cohen said in an interview after the board’s meeting that he didn’t think it was “in the best interest of all the kids in the district” to retain Mr. Rotanz.

“I think we need new leadership,” Mr. Cohen said, though he declined to comment further.

Hear audio from the meeting below.

ROBERT O'ROURK FILE PHOTO | Tom Rotanz has coached Shoreham since 1995.
ROBERT O’ROURK FILE PHOTO | Tom Rotanz has coached Shoreham since 1995, which was the second year of the program.

Mr. Rotanz said he had spoken to Mr. Cohen last Thursday and was allegedly told he could be rehired for one more year so long as he agreed to resign the next year.

When he refused, Mr. Rotanz — who has coached in the district since 1995 and led the boys lacrosse team to a Long Island championship last year — was told he was “too controversial” to remain on as coach, Mr. Rotanz said.

“I found it odd that I was OK for this coming spring, then why wouldn’t I be OK for the following one?” Mr. Rotanz said.

The apparent dismissal sparked an outcry from supporters of the coach and the school’s championship-winning program at the school board’s meeting Tuesday night, which became heated when a member of the public nearly goaded a board member into fighting him before the board member was restrained and the speaker escorted out by security.

More than 100 people, including many members of the boys lacrosse team, packed into the Shoreham-Wading River High School library and lobbied for over an hour for the coach to be reinstated.

“It’s hard to imagine what else you want out of a coach,” said resident John Higgins.

Shoreham resident Bob Hughes praised the way Mr. Rotanz fosters leadership skills in his team, noting programs like Lax Out Cancer, a lacrosse game played to support cancer patients and survivors.

“I saw coaches that developed these young men into men,” Mr. Hughes said.

Some parents questioned whether the board “appreciated” the accomplishments of Mr. Rotanz’s career — which include five state titles, most recently one in 2011 — while others said the district was getting a reputation for having “nothing but drama” in its athletics department.

“We’re a mess. No one wants to come here,” said Ken Gray of Wading River. “The perception is that the board makes decisions tailored to their own needs.”

The debate over Mr. Rotanz’s job reached a fever pitch when John Ryan from the Community Journal newsletter took the podium and began admonishing board vice president John Zukowski over rumors about his child.

Mr. Ryan was quickly cut off by board members, but Mr. Ryan continued to demand answers and Mr. Zukowski told the man to sit down.

“Why don’t you make me sit down?” Mr. Ryan challenged, drawing gasps from the crowd.

Mr. Zukowski sprung up from his chair and began walking toward the man before he was stopped by district officials. Mr. Ryan was ushered out of the room by security.

As Mr. Zukowski returned to his seat, incensed, members of the audience jeered at the board member to applause from the crowd.

While he later apologized for his actions at the end of the meeting, Mr. Zukowski said, “say what you want about me, but leave my family out of it.”

DAVE ANDERSON PHOTO | Shoreham-Wading River coach Tom Rotanz gets dumped with water after the Wildcats' Long Island championship victory last spring.
DAVE ANDERSON PHOTO | Shoreham-Wading River coach Tom Rotanz gets dumped with water after the Wildcats’ Long Island championship victory last spring.

Mr. Cohen said that while the district did not plan to rehire Mr. Rotanz, every other coaching position that wasn’t filled by a SWR faculty member was also made available to see if better candidates would line up for the spots.

“The board wanted to see who applied and what the market was like,” Mr. Cohen said.

Mr. Rotanz was a teacher in the Rocky Point School District. Mr. Rotanz said he remained hopeful the district would reconsider its decision.

“I’m just kind of taken aback on the whole issue,” Mr. Rotanz said. “We had great success on and off the field.”

In the past two years alone, Shoreham graduates have gone on to play lacrosse at schools like the University of Notre Dame, University of Maryland and Ohio State.

This is not the first time Mr. Rotanz’s position has been threatened by controversy. Two years ago, several parents urged the district not to rehire the coach over allegations of bullying and harassment.

But the school board voted unanimously to rehire Mr. Rotanz after other parents, residents, and players came to his defense, arguing that his detractors were disgruntled over their children’s lack of playing time.

Mr. Rotanz also nearly lost his job before the 2002 season, when he was removed as head coach by the school board for what was then described as “serious criminal charges.”

His players led a campaign to bring the coach back and he was reinstated shortly before the 2002 season began without missing a season.

On Tuesday night, Coach Rotanz’s players rushed to his defense again.

“His resume speaks for itself,” said Shoreham senior and lacrosse player Alex Makoske in an interview. The teen was on the varsity team last year, and said he didn’t see much action on the field.

But Alex said that didn’t stop him from enjoying the game and his team.

“I didn’t even play at all, but I still had a great time,” he said.

Hunter Hayes, another senior and key member of last year’s championship team, urged the board to listen to parents and students who wanted Coach Rotanz back.

“I speak for the great majority of my team when I say that we’ve had great experiences playing for two great coaches,” he said. “I cannot understand why you’re taking that away from us. Shouldn’t our voices be the ones that are heard?”

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With Joe Werkmeister