Coach Rotanz offers to negotiate return, SWR board hires new athletic director

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Longtime SWR lacrosse coach Tom Rotanz speaks before the school board Tuesday night.
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Longtime SWR lacrosse coach Tom Rotanz speaks before the school board Tuesday night.

Shoreham-Wading River’s lacrosse program — and who would ultimately run the award-winning team — were at the heart of Tuesday night’s school board meeting.

As more than 100 alumni, players and parents filed into the high school auditorium to demand ousted varsity coach Tom Rotanz’s return, the board approved a new athletic director.

The board voted unanimously to hire Mark Passamonte to oversee the district’s various sports, district officials said.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Students handed out buttons to help support their coach at the meeting.
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Students handed out buttons to help support their coach at the meeting.

Mr. Passamonte was the principal of Canton High School in upstate New York, and also worked as a combination of athletic director and administrator, said Superintendent Steven Cohen.

“It gives him a lot of dimensions that someone who’s only been an athletic director might [not] have,” Mr. Cohen said.

Mr. Passamonte will take over the position from interim athletic director Bill Denniston, who received the job in September after the abrupt resignation from interim athletic director Lynn Schwartz.

Mr. Passamonte will start on Jan. 6.

The hiring was the backdrop for residents’ impassioned pleas that coach Rotanz — who has guided the lacrosse team to three state and five Long Island championships over the past 19 years — be brought back for another year.

Mr. Rotanz told the News-Review that the school had offered him one more year as coach so long as he agreed to retire at the end of the year.

Mr. Cohen confirmed last week that he would not recommend Mr. Rotanz be rehired, adding that he felt a “change in leadership” was necessary.

But that position may soften after Mr. Rotanz addressed the board, and offered to meet again with Mr. Cohen and work on a transition plan.

“I don’t like being controversial, I just like coaching.” Mr. Rotanz said. “I’ll do whatever I can to make your job easier. If we can just sit down and work this out and have these meetings and hopefully face these bigger issues down the road.”

Mr. Cohen later told a member of the audience that he would think over Mr. Rotanz’s offer.

Former players, parents and current students all urged the board to listen to the community’s opinion.

“This is not merely a coach you are dismissing but a way of life here in our community,” said Shoreham resident Christine Bruno. “[Lacrosse] is the very heartbeat of our district.”

Before the meeting, players from the lacrosse team handed out flyers and buttons that read “Support Coach Rotanz.”

Shoreham-Wading River student Kyle Higgins noted on other issues, such as class sizes, the board said it would take  community opinions into account when making decisions.

“We’re the people of the lacrosse community,” he said. “We want Coach Rotanz. Why can’t you give us what we want?”

The meeting was more cordial than last week’s, when a member of the audience nearly goaded a board member into a fight before district officials held the board member back and security escorted the speaker out of the building.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | SWR students listen on at Tuesday night's school board meeting.
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | SWR students listen at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.

But that board member, John Zukowski, was again in the spotlight when a former coach broke the civility of the night and accused Mr. Zukowski of abusing his powers and yelled for his termination as the board’s president attempted to bring the meeting back under control.

Former junior varsity basketball coach Howard Geismar said he was fired because of an altercation he got into with Mr. Zukowski, claiming the board member berated him during a meeting with players’ parents.

“We have a bully on the board,” he shouted.

Mr. Zukowski said after the meeting that he had been responding to a complaint from another parent and said he got permission from the then-superintendent and board president before he approached Mr. Geismar.

Mr. Zukowski flatly denied ever having harsh words with the former coach.

“We shook hands and it was over,” Mr. Zukowski said. “What he said tonight was a complete fabrication.”

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