Pouring It On: The Ethics Of Lopsided Scoring In High School Sports

A Pierson player reacts to a loss. CAILIN RILEY

Pat Pizzarelli has been involved in high school athletics for nearly half a century, and he still remembers something he learned when he was an assistant football coach to Larry Ciotti at Daniel Hand High School in Madison, Connecticut, in the 1970s. The team was a powerhouse, head and shoulders above every opponent it faced during several undefeated seasons, led by a pair of running backs who each rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a single season. Most games, that dynamic duo never played in the second half, because by then, there was no doubt who would win.

“I was probably around 22 or 23 years old and I remember asking the coach if we should put them back in to start the second half,” Pizzarelli recalled, noting the star players had only carried the ball a handful of times in helping their team amass major yardage and a score differential that would be impossible for its opponent to overcome. “He said to me, ‘Pat, at some point you’ll be on the other sideline. Do you want to be on the other side of that?’”

It’s a moment Pizzarelli said he’s never forgotten, and a lesson he’s carried with him and tried to instill in others over the years as he became head coach of another dominant team at Plainedge High School, before he came to his current role at the director of Section VIII (Nassau County) athletics.

“He told me, ‘They work just as hard as we work. Why should we embarrass them?’” he added.

For Pizzarelli and many others, the answer to the question of what a coach should do when his or her team is leading its opponent by a wide and insurmountable margin is clear — bench the starters, and don’t put them back in. But determining when a game has arrived at that point is sometimes a gray area, and the degree to which coaches have a duty to try and keep a score “respectable”— and what, exactly, that subjective term means — is a topic of debate among coaches, players, parents, and athletic directors. It’s something I thought about a lot in the wake of the Pierson field hockey team’s 11-0 loss to eventual state champion Whitney Point in the New York State Class C semifinals at Centereach High School on November 13.

To call Whitney Point a powerhouse is an understatement. The Golden Eagles have won six out of the last seven state titles in Class C, including five straight from 2014 through 2018. They were particularly dominant this year, going 18-0 and outscoring their opponents 132-10 over the course of those 18 games, averaging 7.3 goals per game, while allowing an average of just 0.5 goals per game. You have to tip your hat to a program that can achieve and sustain such a high level of play on a year-to-year basis, and Whitney Point head coach Rachel Huston said that a thriving youth program, where children start playing as early as kindergarten, has been a key component of that success over the years.

In the Saturday semifinal, played in Pierson’s home section, Whitney Point made it clear right away how the game was going to go. Kaylie Lynch scored the first goal just 45 seconds into the first quarter, and she scored three more after that, making it Kaylie Lynch, 4, Pierson, 0, with 11 minutes still remaining until halftime. Whitney Point was up, 5-0, at half, and poured on six more goals in the second half before it was over. The final three goals of the game were scored by junior Brenna Bough, all in the fourth quarter, the last one with 4:32 left in the game, off an assist from Lynch. Bough and Lynch each scored five goals, while Bough also had three assists.

Several Pierson players were crying after the loss, which I can say from many years covering high school sports (and also, from past personal experience crying after playing in and losing a state championship field hockey game wearing that very same red and black Whalers uniform), is a standard response no matter what the final number on the scoreboard reads. I did not get a chance to speak with the Pierson players after the game, but I began to wonder, did the final score make the pain of losing any worse? Would it have been any less upsetting for those girls if Whitney Point had made a concerted effort to only play its subs and try to slow its offense down in the second half? How would I have felt if that had happened to me during my playing days?

I can’t answer any of those questions definitively. Losing is never fun, especially in the playoffs, especially when you are just two wins away from a state title. Whether you lose to a team you should have beaten, or get clocked by a far superior team, it still hurts. A better question might be: What are the larger lessons imparted to high school student-athletes on both ends of such a lopsided score?

I don’t know Rachel Huston, and don’t know what her reputation is as a coach in Section VI (Binghamton area) where Whitney Point plays. Any coach who can lead a team to an undefeated season and as many state titles as she has must be doing something right, and deserves to be recognized and respected for that. What stayed with me about that game was not the number of goals Whitney Point up on Pierson — although it’s worth noting that double-digit score differentials in a sport like field hockey, which is low scoring by nature, are rare. I remained fixated on the fact that both Lynch and Bough were still on the field and still in a position to score with less than five minutes left in the game, up 10-0, and with another game — the state championship — left to play the next day.

I spoke to Huston over the phone a few days after the game and asked her to share her thoughts on the ethics of running up the score, and her thought process when it came to keeping two of her top players in the game until the end. Huston pointed out that every player on her team got on the field in that game, and also added that every player on her team scored at least once during the course of the season. I certainly noticed how frequently she was subbing players throughout the second half and even in the second quarter of the win over Pierson. When I brought up the idea of asking players — particularly starters — to try not to score in a lopsided game, she brought up a point that some other coaches have said as well — that sometimes, blatantly passing up on a chance to score makes it obvious to an opponent that you’re essentially taking pity on them, which can be a different kind of disrespect.

Huston said she also decided to keep players like Lynch and Bough on the field in the latter stages of the game because she had subbed in several inexperienced players, and felt that she needed the leadership of those more veteran players on the field to help guide the younger teammates along.

For me, there was one statement that said the most about Huston’s approach to how she handled that game: “When you’re playing in a state semifinal, I’m not saying all bets are off, but you come to play,” she said.

There was mixed reaction to this kind of sentiment when I spoke to several other local coaches and athletic directors about the degree to which they have a responsibility to keep scores respectable. Pierson head coach Nina Hemby was not available to comment, but Jackie Trelease, who coaches the Southampton varsity field hockey team in Class B, had a nuanced response.

“I’m not against racking up points, but I’m also not for having your top scorer out there until the end in a scoring position,” she said. “A lot of teams rotate bench players on to the field for garbage time after it’s clear a game has been decided, and if they score, they score. That said, some of these teams we see from other regions, they win by huge margins all the time, and if kids are trying to commit to Division I schools, stats are key. I’ve been on the losing end of large margins, and the kids just shut down. It’s hard to watch. I think in a regular season, you temper it out of respect for your league, but come playoffs, it’s supposed to be the best of the best, so it’s put up or shut up.”

Many other coaches agreed that in a lopsided game, if a coach puts in the bench players, he or she has in essence made a show of respect, and it’s not reasonable to expect those substitute players — who don’t often get a chance to showcase their skills — not to play as hard as they can.

Richard “Juni” Wingfield has coached the Southampton girls basketball team for decades, and he said he remembers when his team would play non-league games against Sachem, which was a powerhouse when it had standout player Nicole Kaczmarski, who scored more than 2,500 points in high school and went on to play at UCLA. Kaczmarski would be on the bench by halftime, the damage done, and the final outcome no longer in question, and Wingfield said that Sachem was so good that its bench players still handily outscored his starters. That was fine with him though, Wingfield said, because keeping those starters on the bench for the remainder of the game was a show of good sportsmanship.

“Intent becomes very major,” Wingfield said. “You can tell when someone is intending to run the score up.”

Adhering to the kind of good sportsmanship that is inherent in trying to keep the score reasonable has largely been an unwritten and unenforceable rule. But a few years ago, Nassau County created a score differential policy that provides a process and framework for penalizing coaches who run up the score. What constitutes running up the score is a somewhat subjective metric, and varies from sport to sport. In Nassau County, even in games where the final score is egregiously lopsided — a basketball team winning by more than 35 points, or a football team winning by more than 42 points — there is still a process to work through. Both coaches and the officials have to submit a written report, arguing their case, and then a Section VIII sports committee reviews those reports and makes a ruling. If they feel there was a violation, they call the coaches into a meeting for a second review. Coaches found to be in violation of the score differential policy receive a warning for the first infraction. If it happens again, the coach is suspended for the following game, although they do have the right to appeal that suspension.

Pizzarelli admitted he took a lot of heat when he first implemented the policy, and said it needed to be updated after the first year, when any first-time infractions led directly to a suspension instead of a warning. But he stands by the policy as it exists today.

“Some people argue that, well, this is sports, you’re supposed to win,” Pizzarelli said. “But you’re playing to win, not playing to embarrass.”

Pizzarelli added that coaches at the interscholastic level have a different kind of responsibility than those leading AAU or for-profit travel leagues.

“One of the biggest differences between high school sports and travel teams is that we’re educationally based,” he said. “We feel in Nassau County that once you have a team beaten, you don’t have to keep pouring it on.”

While there is no similar policy in Suffolk County, Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips agreed with Pizzarelli’s stance, and said it’s up to athletic directors to make sure they impart that message to their coaches. He acknowledged that keeping scores respectable isn’t always easy, and that sometimes a well-meaning attempt to keep the score from getting out of hand can have the opposite effect.

“I remember one time Mount Sinai was up big on us in a football game, and they took a knee instead of kicking an extra point, and sometimes that can be more insulting in a way,” he said.

But he agreed that when the game is already far out of reach, the winning team’s starters should be sat down, and shouldn’t return to the game.

“We have to be empathetic, and I think we’ve lost that a lot of times in sports with how we try to humiliate opponents,” he said. “It falls on me and the coaches to have those conversations with kids. It’s about teaching kids character.”

Phillips said there are coaches who “get it” better than others, citing Wingfield as a prime example of someone who does. His teams have been the recipients of many sportsmanship awards, and for Wingfield, it’s a point of pride that they’ve been given that recognition both in years when they’ve struggled to win two or three games in a season, and years they’ve won league and county championships.

It’s rare for a program to achieve the kind of dominance that the Whitney Point field hockey program has over the last decade, and the coach, players, and school have every right to be proud of plaques and banners that hang in their halls, and the hard work and dedication it took to bring them home. But even the greatest sports dynasties don’t last forever. Returning to earth, even if only for a brief period of time, is inevitable.

“The people you pass on the way up,” Wingfield said, “are the same people you pass on the way down.”