05/08/2012 09:30 EDT | Updated 07/08/2012 05:12 EDT

NY boy, 13, wants to stay on girls field hockey squad; officials say his skills are too good

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. - A 13-year-old New York boy who played field hockey growing up in Ireland has been told that after two years on a girls' high school team, he's too skilled to be allowed to compete with — and against — girls next season.

Keeling Pilaro, whose 10 goals earned him all-conference honours on suburban Long Island — he was the only boy in any league — is appealing the decision by the governing body for high school sports in Suffolk County, and a lawyer for his family suggests a court battle could ensue.

An appeals committee said it looked only at his skills, not size or strength, when upholding the decision to keep him off the field for Southampton High School. That raises a question of discrimination.

Keeling's fight appears to be a rare example of a young man seeking to take advantage of Title IX, a 40-year-old U.S. government law enacted to provide women equal access to athletic opportunities. There are no boys' high school field hockey teams anywhere on Long Island, or, for that matter, in most of the country.

"It's really annoying," Pilaro said in a recent interview. "I'm just 4-foot-8 and 82 pounds (1.43 metres and 38 kilograms), so I don't see why I shouldn't be allowed to play. I don't really care if I'm on a girls' team or a boys' team, I just want to play."

Southampton School administrators agree, but they don't have the final say.

"The decision to support him represents our commitment to provide meaningful opportunities to each of our students," Superintendent Dr. J. Richard Boyes said in a statement. "Our community, including the girls on our field hockey team, embraced Keeling Pilaro and we couldn't be more proud of him."

The problem, according to Edward Cinelli, the director of the organization that oversees high school athletics in Suffolk County, is that state education law won't allow it. He cited a provision that says administrators are permitted to bar boys from girls' teams if a boy's participation "would have a significant adverse effect" on a girl's opportunity to participate in interschool competition in that sport. Officials say Keeling's skills are superior to the girls he plays against, creating an unfair advantage.

Keeling's defenders say that while he has played well, his skills are not superior to everyone else in the league, and also that his skill level should not be the final determining factor in whether he gets to play.

In order to play with the girls in the first place, Keeling had to get permission from Suffolk's mixed-competition committee, which screens players who want to compete on teams of the opposite sex. Cinelli says there have been occasions where girls have been approved to play football, wrestle or compete in other traditional boys sports, but Keeling is the first in his memory to play alongside girls.

Pilaro lost an appeal in April, and a second hearing is set for May 15.

Keeling also plays with an all-girls field hockey club team, his father, Andrew, said, contending that there have been no problems in club competition.

The United States is one of the rare places in the world where boys do not regularly play field hockey, said Chris Clements, the national men's coach for USA Field Hockey. He said there are some leagues for boys in California, places on the East Coast where men and boys play, and club teams. But he conceded the opportunities for boys to learn the sport are rare.

"Even the girls don't pick up the sport until high school, or middle school."

He said USA Field Hockey is working on initiatives aimed at getting more boys involved. Some on the national team played on girls high school teams when they were younger; others have also developed skills playing in Europe, he said.

He said Keeling's age and skill sets should not disqualify him from playing with the girls next season.