Softball Coach Is Under Fire

Lou Reale and his assistant, Nicole Fierro, at right, with three young players back in June when he was looking forward to another year as the softball coach. Jack Graves

Lou Reale, who recently was named one of the top eight high school softball coaches in the United States, and who stands fourth on New York State's all-time win list, said Sunday he had been forced by the East Hampton High School District's superintendent, Rich Burns, to retire.

Mr. Burns did not return a call for comment.

Coach Reale wrote a retirement letter, though he said he'd done so only under duress as the result of a relentless four-year campaign by Bill Fleming, an attorney, whose daughter Catherine, as far as the veteran coach could recall, "never played a game for me."

Mr. Fleming said, when asked if he had been "campaigning" against Coach Reale, "the last time I campaigned for anything was when I ran for the Legislature in 1983."

"That's a lie," said Coach Reale when told of Mr. Fleming's comment. "All I know is that I heard three years ago he told Joe Vas [East Hampton’s athletic director] that he’d pay my salary if I wouldn’t coach.”

"They tried the same thing with Ed Petrie," said John Ryan Sr., a member of the East Hampton School Board, said, referring to a parent who had had it in for the late great East Hampton High basketball coach and had slandered him with a spurious charge at a school board meeting. "But  [the athletic director at the time] put the kibosh on that right away. They did Lou bad."

"The parents are going over Joe Vas's head," said Coach Reale. "That's the way it was done with Steve Redlus [East Hampton's former varsity football coach] and with R.J. [Etzel, a former varsity baseball coach]."

"I had no choice," the coach said when asked why he had submitted a retirement letter. "It was either not be rehired, which I was told would happen, or be fired."

Just a month ago, before the latest of Mr. Fleming's letters to Mr. Burns and the school board had become known, Coach Reale said, after handing out awards to three of his young players, Maddie Schenck, Sam Merritt, and Dylan Schleider, that he was looking forward to another year.

"I heard Burns said they wanted to go in a different direction, that they weren't so much interested in winning than in participation," Coach Reale said, adding, "there's more to it than softball — it's about how you lead your life. Are you going to be accountable, a responsible person? Why settle for mediocrity? Don't settle for a B when you can get an A."

"Lou has tons of support," said Jason Biondo, whose daughter, Raven, who will be a ninth grader, is the backup catcher on East Hampton's softball team, and who has told her father she hoped Coach Reale would stay as the coach throughout her career.

Mr. Biondo and Rich Swanson, the father of another of the young players, are hoping to muster a large turnout at Tuesday's school board meeting in support of Coach Reale, who said he would definitely rethink what he considers a forced resignation if he were able to continue on.

Mr. Fleming, recalling a line from a speech by Cicero, said that the facts spoke for themselves, one of which, to wit, was that Coach Reale's teams in the past three years had been made up largely of raw recruits, not upperclassmen.

"As for that," said Coach Reale, who in a 27-year career has made the playoffs in all but the past three years, "to say that these kids are less is wrong! Casey Walecko was all-state as an eighth grader. Shoreham Wading River had three or four eight graders on their team this year, which made it to the county semifinals.  When it comes to the lack of upperclassmen, we had no jayvee.  It’s not just here, it’s happening in a lot of programs all over Suffolk County.  That's the way it is.”