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02/20/14 1:00pm
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BILL LANDON FILE PHOTO  |  Former Shoreham-Wading River boys lacrosse coach Tom Rotanz speaks with a reporter in 2012.

Former Shoreham-Wading River boys lacrosse coach Tom Rotanz speaks with a reporter in 2012. (Bill Landon file photo)

Former Shoreham-Wading River boys lacrosse coach Tom Rotanz was hired as an assistant coach at Smithtown West for the upcoming season after spending the previous 19 years leading the Wildcats. (more…)

01/07/14 10:37pm
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | The Shoreham-Wading River school board appointed during its regular meeting Tuesday night.

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | The Shoreham-Wading River school board appointed Justin Arini as the boys varsity lacrosse coach during its regular meeting Tuesday night.

The Shoreham-Wading River school board has hired a replacement for ousted boys varsity lacrosse coach Tom Rotanz, the Riverhead News-Review has learned.

Justin Arini — who works as a guidance counselor in the high school, according to his Facebook page — will replace Mr. Rotanz for the upcoming spring season.

Four out of the seven school board members voted in favor of Mr. Arini’s appointment Tuesday night. School board vice president John Zukowski abstained from voting and said after the meeting he did so because his son plays lacrosse. Sean Beran was absent and Robert Rose voted against the appointment.

“My nay vote has nothing at all to do with the candidate,” Mr. Rose said shortly after the vote. “It has everything to do with the process.”

Mr. Rose declined to elaborate after the meeting what his issue was with the process.

Mr. Arini, 28, is a Ward Melville graduate who played lacrosse under legendary coach Joe Cuozzo, just as Mr. Rotanz did years earlier. He’s coached previously as an assistant at NYIT and Manhattan College. At both schools he focused on coaching offense and recruiting. He coached most recently as a varsity assistant at Huntington High School last spring, according to a news report.

Mr. Arini was a goalkeeper in college at Alfred State. He’ll take over a program that Mr. Rotanz led for 19 years before his sudden dismissal in November.

The Wildcats are two-time defending Long Island champions and the preseason No. 1 seed in Division II for the upcoming spring season.


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12/18/13 12:30pm
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | From left, Shoreham-Wading River School District Superintendent Steven Cohen, school board president Bill McGrath and vice president John Zukowski at Tuesday night's meeting.

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | From left, Shoreham-Wading River School District Superintendent Steven Cohen, school board president Bill McGrath and vice president John Zukowski at Tuesday night’s meeting.

A Wading River resident took to the podium at Tuesday night’s Shoreham-Wading River school board meeting to accuse and chastise a school board member for wrongfully “leaking” an email sent from an unidentified resident to another resident.

Nikko Lavey claimed the email, which the News-Review could not obtain, was addressed to Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steven Cohen and contained “unflattering” comments about another person in the community. Apparently, the email got into that person’s hands. Although Mr. Lavey offered no details, he said the email was about the controversy concerning longtime boys varsity lacrosse coach Tom Rotanz, who will not be returning to Shoreham to coach the team in the spring.

Mr. Lavey said the email in question has created an uproar among district lacrosse players.

“The end result, teammates on the lacrosse team are now pointing fingers at each other and there has been no shortage of dissension among families involved,” he said.

Mr. Lavey declined to say which board member he believed had provided the email to the person mentioned in it.

Jeff Hayes of Wading River was the only other person to address the school board on this matter during Tuesday’s meeting.

“How is an email sent to you and only you forwarded on to board members or community members?” Mr. Hayes asked Mr. Cohen. “What is the policy on that? It was an email sent to you and only you and it ended up in a community member’s hands.”

None of the school board members responded to Mr. Lavey and Mr. Hayes.

Mr. Cohen declined comment after the meeting.

Also at the meeting, interim athletic director William Denniston honored several coaches and student athletes from this past fall season.

Some of the accomplishments were the tennis, cross country and football teams’ victories.

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12/17/13 5:00pm
JOE WERKMEISTER FILE PHOTO | The Shoreham-Wading River school board meeting is at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in the high school library.

FILE PHOTO | The Shoreham-Wading River school board meeting is at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the high school library.

The Shoreham-Wading River school board is expected to discuss instructional program support plans during its regular meeting Tuesday night.

The discussion is part of Superintendent Steven Cohen’s series of presentations titled “Strategic Planning.”

The school board is also expected to vote on coach appointments, according to the meeting agenda. The district doesn’t release the names listed under personnel recommendations until after the resolution is approved, administrators have said.

It is unclear if the list includes a replacement for boys varsity lacrosse coach Tom Rotanz, whom the superintendent has said will not return next school year.

Scroll down to view the complete agenda. Check back for an update.

SWR School board meeting agenda, Dec. 17, 2013

12/13/13 6:59am
12/13/2013 6:59 AM

BILL LANDON FILE PHOTO | Former Shoreham-Wading River boys lacrosse coach Tom Rotanz speaks with a reporter in 2012.

In Tom Rotanz’s impassioned 109-second plea to the Shoreham-Wading River School Board Nov. 19 to keep his job as the varsity boys lacrosse coach, there was one notable omission.

He spoke of being “disappointed.”

He asked Superintendent Steven Cohen for “guidelines. Do’s and dont’s.”

He said he didn’t want to be “controversial.”

What he never said was: I’m sorry.

Of course, he’s the victim here, he’ll be quick to tell you. In 19 years, he’s never done anything wrong, always putting the kids first. And anyone who says anything to the contrary is out to get him for their own personal agenda.

It’s always the same script.

I’ve known Mr. Rotanz since the spring of 2006, when I covered Shoreham-Wading River’s county championship win over Mount Sinai. The Wildcats were in the midst of one of their most successful runs in program history, capped by a state championship the following year in Syracuse.

I’ve always respected him for his ability to mold teams into winners and rally the community around the game of lacrosse. His résumé speaks for itself.

Related: At SWR, it’s been one athletic director after another

But I’ve also known Mr. Rotanz to be a polarizing figure, a larger-than-life coach who can be awfully persuasive. Most coaches shy away from the politics; not Mr. Rotanz, who has always been a vocal advocate for the lacrosse program. After word got out that Mr. Rotanz would not be rehired, Mr. Cohen and the school board declined to provide any specific details, citing it as a personnel decision. The school’s attorney, Greg Guercio, spoke at a school board meeting.

“I’ve directed the board … that they are not to release any of the contents of a personal file or any of the information that forms a basis for the superintendent’s decision not to make a recommendation,” Mr. Guercio said.

Given the lack of information provided by the school, it’s worth examining all aspects of Mr. Rotanz’s record. One area worth consideration is Mr. Rotanz’s company, The Power Shaft, and how it relates to Shoreham-Wading River.

In 2010, Mr. Rotanz, a retired teacher, invented a weighted lacrosse shaft that’s designed to connect with the head of a player’s regular stick. Training with the weighted shaft improves shot speed for offensive players, increases hand speed for face-off specialists and puts a “pop” in defensemen’s checks, according to The Power Shaft website.

After launching the product, which retails for between $89.95 and $125.99, in 2011, Mr. Rotanz made a promotional video that was featured on the home page of the company’s website.

The video details some of the benefits, before a narrator says: “Don’t take my word for it. We brought the Power Shaft to a collection of amateur and professional lacrosse players and, boy, were they amazed at the result.”

The video features demonstrations by several lacrosse players from Shoreham-Wading River, who are wearing Power Shaft apparel.

The video appears to have first been uploaded to YouTube on May 4, 2011. Mr. Rotanz uploaded clips from the video to his YouTube account in August 2011.

At least one athlete in the video is now a Division I lacrosse player. There’s no evidence that the player sanctioned the use of his image once he became an NCAA athlete.

When asked if that could cause a potential issue with the player’s NCAA eligibility, Mr. Rotanz said: “No, it’s not. We looked into it. They’re all sophomores and juniors in high school. That was checked.”

However, once a student becomes an NCAA student-athlete, he cannot appear in a commercial video promoting a product, according to Emily James, a spokesperson for the NCAA, who deals with eligibility and infraction issues and provided a description of general guidelines.

“Once the prospect becomes an NCAA student-athlete, the high school coach could no longer use the promotional video containing current student-athletes,” Ms. James wrote in an email. “If the coach did, the current student athlete’s school would have to issue a cease and desist letter.”

After Mr. Rotanz was contacted for this story, the video was removed from the Power Shaft home page and deleted from Mr. Rotanz’s YouTube account. Some clips still remained on an inside website page.

The newest video is a 12-minute instructional video featuring drills to use with the Power Shaft. The video was filmed this year at Shoreham-Wading River High School and features Shoreham lacrosse alumni who are no longer in college programs. It was uploaded to Mr. Rotanz’s YouTube account in October.

A screenshot of a Power Shaft video that was filmed on Shoreham-Wading River school grounds. The video was uploaded to YouTube in October.

Shoreham Superintendent Steven Cohen confirmed that filming such a video on school grounds violates the school’s facility-use policy.

“Not acceptable,” Mr. Cohen said.

For-profit organizations can use school grounds under certain conditions, Mr. Cohen said, such as contributing to educational programs. The board is currently considering prohibiting all for-profit organizations from using facilities, to clarify the rule, Mr. Cohen said.

Filming the video did not appear to factor into Mr. Cohen’s decision on rehiring Mr. Rotanz. The superintendent said he was unaware of the video when contacted for comment a few weeks after making his decision.

Mr. Rotanz said he was unaware the video violated any policy and was never told he couldn’t film on school grounds.

“If you go to the library, there’s people that do tutoring there privately,” Mr. Rotanz said.

Asked if that was a fair comparison, he said: “They’re making money off it … I think it’s pretty much the same.”

Mr. Rotanz said the video serves as an instructional film for anyone to see, and is not merely to sell his lacrosse shaft.

Asked if he ever made instructional videos before inventing the Power Shaft, Mr. Rotanz said, “Not really, because I had no avenue to get it out there.”

While Mr. Cohen said that, from the school’s perspective, there was no issue with students appearing in a commercial video filmed off-campus, the circumstances certainly raise ethical questions about whether it’s appropriate for a coach to use his athletes to promote a product he sells.

Mr. Rotanz maintained the students in the video were not compensated, which would have been an NCAA violation.

Mr. Rotanz added a philanthropic note to his website with a message saying: “For every Power Shaft sold, The Power Shaft will be making a $1 donation to the New York Police and Fire Widow’s and Children’s Benefit Fund.”

A screenshot of a message on The Power Shaft homepage, which was later removed.

Out of curiosity, I checked with the organization to confirm whether it had received donations from The Power Shaft. Mr. Rotanz said he spoke with a representative of the organization Dec. 2.

Afterward, Lauren Profeta, associate director for development, wrote back to me in an email: “We will be receiving our first installment this week.”

I asked Mr. Rotanz when he started donating from Power Shaft to the benefit fund.

“For a period,” he said, adding that the charity hits home on a personal note because he benefited from it growing up.

The message explaining the donation was taken off the website shortly afterward. It had appeared there since at least February 2011, according to a screenshot from archive.org, which takes periodic snapshots of websites and stores them in an online archive.

Taken individually, the mishaps and missteps and misinformation swirling around Mr. Rotanz may not seem like such a big deal. But questionable judgment adds up. As the coach of young men, Mr. Rotanz needs to hold himself to a higher standard, whether it’s in his role as coach or as the owner/operator of a private company.

As chronicled in the adjacent story, turnover in the athletic director position has been rampant at Shoreham.

At the Nov. 19 board meeting, former Shoreham assistant lacrosse coach Mike Delia spoke in Mr. Rotanz’s defense. In part of his statement, he said, “Why not wait for the AD to come and make a decision on coach Rotanz?”

In my opinion, Mr. Delia misses the point.

Dumping this onto a brand-new athletic director only sets him up for failure. How could a new athletic director possibly make an objective decision about Mr. Rotanz without taking ample time to review the background? The new athletic director could never make a decision against Mr. Rotanz and come out alive.

That’s why I believe Mr. Cohen made the decision when he did, fully aware of the backlash that would follow.

Despite the grim forecast from all of Mr. Rotanz’s supporters, I don’t believe his departure will mark the end of Shoreham lacrosse as we know it. The passion for the sport runs deep. I don’t see that fading.

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11/20/13 9:39am
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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11/16/13 12:00pm
11/16/2013 12:00 PM
RACHEL YOUNG PHOTO  |  Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steve Cohen.

RACHEL YOUNG FILE PHOTO | Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steven Cohen.

In the wake of Tuesday night’s announcement that Shoreham-Wading River lacrosse coach Tom Rotanz would not be rehired for the upcoming spring season after 19 years, school superintendent Steven Cohen wrote a letter to the families and team members of the boys lacrosse team seeking to explain his decision.

In the letter, which the News-Review obtained a copy, Mr. Cohen said the decision was solely his and not the Board of Education’s.

Mr. Cohen admitted he was unlikely to sway the staunch supporters of coach Rotanz, who guided the Wildcats to three state championships in his tenure, but he hoped to shed light on the decision.

“Co-curricular positions for coaching, clubs and other activities are not positions of entitlement, tenure or popularity,” Mr. Cohen wrote. “Obviously, the historical record of employment of a candidate is a meaningful consideration in any evaluation, but it is not the only one or even the determining one.”

Mr. Cohen reiterated that his decision was not influenced by any playing time or treatment of specific individuals.

“But as a practice, it is legally required that I remain silent about the employment files of all employees,” Mr. Cohen wrote.

It is unclear who will take over the program, which coach Rotanz started coaching in its second year in 1995.

To read the entire letter, click below:

Cohen Letter to SWR lacrosse team

11/13/13 7:06am
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