From Mercy High School’s humble beginnings in the 1950s, when 47 students in a temporary building on Roanoke Avenue made up its inaugural class, the small Riverhead school has served as the East End’s home for secondary students seeking a Catholic education in a close-knit community. As the school expanded, eventually becoming Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School in 2002, students there continued to gravitate toward athletics as a part of their education.
The Monarchs, while successful at times in certain sports, have never been known as a powerhouse program.
Administrators now hope to change that.
High school principal Carl Semmler and newly appointed athletic director Paul Mastronardi have unveiled a bold plan to bolster the school’s athletic department as a way to increase enrollment — a strategy that has already left two of the school’s most respected coaches in its wake. They outlined the plan Feb. 11 in a closed-door meeting with parents of Monarchs football players. The meeting — which had been postponed from Feb. 5 because of weather — was the first time the pair offered an explanation for the surprise decision to oust Jeff Doroski as varsity football head coach. Mr. Doroski remains a physical education teacher in the school. About 45 parents attended the meeting, which at times became contentious. One man was asked to leave during a heated exchange halfway through the meeting.
A person in attendance recorded the meeting and provided The Suffolk Times a copy. The meeting lasted nearly two hours inside the school auditorium, where Mr. Semmler and Mr. Mastronardi faced a barrage of questions and criticism from parents.
At the center of the criticism were Mr. Mastronardi’s credentials as an administrator and whether he and Mr. Semmler planned to turn the small high school in Riverhead into the next St. Anthony’s, a sports-rich school in Huntington that competes in the Catholic High School Athletic Association.
“The vision for the athletic program is to win championships in our current state,” Mr. Mastronardi told the group.
Part of the plan outlined included bringing in “college-level” coaches in all sports and signing on with different sports programs to host youth camps at Mercy that will allow the school to showcase its campus to a new crop of potential students.
Mr. Semmler said the school’s enrollment ultimately needs to climb to about 650 and needs to reach 600 within two years. Including the junior high grades, the school currently has about 515 students, he said.
“Sports can help us reach that goal,” the principal said. “And then that goal can help us have more AP courses, perhaps in-house college courses. This is an attempt to bring the school to a new level of excellence.”
Later in the meeting he added: “It’s very important that we increase the enrollment. And I can’t comment any more on that.”
When reached for comment for this article, Mr. Mastronardi deferred comment to school spokeswoman Robin Bay. In a statement to the Suffolk Times Wednesday, the school provided a synopsis of what was discussed at the meeting. Mr. Semmler said in the statement: “The athletic program is undergoing a renaissance that is sure to benefit all of our student athletes.”
Mr. Mastronardi’s ascension to athletic director at Mercy came at an odd time in the middle of the school year. The school announced in early January that John Lonardo had resigned to pursue a business opportunity in the private sector. Mr. Mastronardi, who previously coached football at Eastport-South Manor, was immediately hired as his replacement.
At the Feb. 11 meeting, Mr. Semmler discussed his process for hiring the new AD. About 3 1/2 years ago, he said, Mr. Mastronardi applied for a position at Mercy. A source familiar with the situation said Mr. Mastronardi had been a finalist for the varsity football coach position when Mr. Doroski was hired.
“In the process, I really believed he had a unique skill set at that time to bring the school to the next level,” Mr. Semmler said.
Instead, Mr. Mastronardi became the football coach at Eastport, turning down the offer of a different position at Mercy, Mr. Semmler said. In November and December 2013, Mr. Lonardo was allegedly torn about whether to finish out the year at Mercy or pursue a private business opportunity. Mr. Lonardo did not return calls for comment on this story.
Mr. Semmler reached out to potential AD candidates at that time, with Mr. Mastronardi at the top of the list. They met several times for lunch, dinner and official interviews, Mr. Semmler said.
“I indicated to him that if Mr. Lonardo wished to move on, would he be interested in him coming [to Mercy],” Mr. Semmler said. “At the time he had two other offers. … I offered him the job and he accepted.”
Shortly after taking the job, Mr. Mastronardi made a point of visiting physical education classes at Mercy to gauge students’ interest in football, according to a student who was present.
By the end of January, less than a month after Mr. Mastronardi became AD, word began to spread through the school that Mr. Doroski — a longtime coach at various levels who graduated from Mercy in 1992 — would not be brought back as varsity football coach. About two weeks ago, longtime baseball coach Ed Meier — a ’99 Mercy grad — resigned as varsity coach. Mr. Doroski had worked closely with Mr. Meier as the junior varsity coach. Mr. Meier told The Suffolk Times he resigned for “personal reasons.”
Mr. Semmler tried to downplay the decision to remove Mr. Doroski as head coach of the football team, saying that Mr. Doroski was not fired and that only removing a coach during the season could be considered firing. Coaches are hired on a yearly basis, the standard for schools across Suffolk County.
“People are saying that in an attempt to vilify the school,” he said. “What I would encourage you to do, if you are a fan of Mr. Doroski and a fan of his future, is to indicate the proper [term], that he was not renewed.”
Mr. Semmler said he authorized the decision in consultation with Mr. Mastronardi.
Mr. Doroski said he understood that when a change in administration occurs, there’s potential for a change in the vision and direction for the school.
“While I may not necessarily agree with that vision or direction, I understand it as a professional,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m obviously disappointed. But I have to be willing to accept what they’re trying to do and move forward from a personal standpoint and a professional standpoint.”
Two years ago, under Mr. Doroski’s guidance, the Monarchs matched their highest single-season win total (7) since 1978. The Monarchs advanced into the semifinals of the Division IV playoffs after winning their first playoff game since 1991, when Mr. Doroski was a player on the team.
Mr. Doroski was offered other coaching positions in the school and could still become an assistant coach for football. Mr. Doroski said he hasn’t made a decision yet regarding football as he waits to see who becomes the varsity coach.
During the meeting with parents, Mr. Mastronardi said they’ve identified specific sports as the focus for improvement: football, girls soccer, boys and girls basketball, boys and girls lacrosse and crew.
“These are vital areas we have targeted,” he said. “Football is the No. 1 area. My area of expertise is football. I know what I want.”
The room erupted in laughter as he finished the sentence. He then clarified: “Not that I want, but I know what I want in terms of the football program.”
When questioned about why Mr. Doroski could not remain head coach, Mr. Mastronardi said the coaches he’s looking to bring on board are “more experienced.”
Mr. Mastronardi acknowledged that he will be coaching football as well as lacrosse in the spring, although he said he would not be the head coach. At the Section XI football seeding meeting Feb. 6, Mr. Mastronardi represented Mercy. The packet Mercy was required to submit featured Mr. Mastronardi as the head coach, he told parents. Also listed as a coach was Bob Ricca, a former head coach for the now defunct St. John’s University football team, where Mr. Mastronardi was once an assistant coach. Joe Read, who was the head coach at Mercy before Mr. Doroski, was also listed as a coach. Mr. Read, who’s also the Southold varsity girls basketball coach, was an assistant coach under Mr. Mastronardi at Eastport and the two have a close relationship.
A coach at another school confirmed those were the names listed in Mercy’s packet.
“I will be coaching football here,” Mr. Mastronardi said at the meeting. “I will not be the head football coach. But I will lend my expertise in the program, just like I’m going to coach lacrosse here.”
None of the positions has been officially filled yet.
The future for Mercy’s assistant coaches and junior varsity coach is unclear. Ken Marelli, who worked under Mr. Doroski as a varsity assistant, spoke at the meeting, saying he had not been told whether he had a role going forward.
“I thought it was very morally wrong that I have not been brought in, discussed with anybody about what’s going on in these programs, and I’ve been here for three years,” Mr. Marelli said at the meeting.
Mr. Mastronardi told him he would be given a chance to apply for a coaching position. Phil Lombardi, another Mercy graduate, had previously been the junior varsity coach. His future is also uncertain.
Part of the pitch to parents detailing the glowing future of Mercy athletics included joining several sports programs, namely the National Football Foundation, Long Island Express Lacrosse and Fundamental Sports Training.
Through the National Football Foundation, Mr. Mastronardi said he plans to run football camps during the summer at Mercy. He said it would be similar to a camp he ran out of Eastport.
“We’re hoping through that vehicle we’ll be able to expose young men and possibly young women to our great facility and our great vision for this program,” he said.
A parent raised a question about covering the cost of more coaches. Mr. Mastronardi admitted that the salaries for coaches are “slightly below” those in public schools.
“One of the things we’re going to do, and I did this at Eastport-South Manor, I subsidized my volunteer coaches through my football camp that I was running over the summer,” he said. “We were able to pay for the volunteer coaches and subsidize them from that football camp. That’s one of the things we plan on doing.”
He added that head coaches will be expected to “be involved vigorously in our camp program.”
The directors of Long Island Express Lacrosse include three coaches from St. Anthony’s. The lacrosse club hosts summer tournaments for students as well as recruiting camps. Mr. Semmler discussed the lacrosse program’s desire to expand to the East End and confirmed that Mercy will host a summer camp in conjunction with Long Island Express.
“They want a presence of lacrosse on the North and South forks and eastern Suffolk,” the principal said. “They want a school that’s not a public school where there’s not a ton of red tape to get things done.”
As a trade-off, the lacrosse club is actively trying to recruit coaches to come to Mercy, Mr. Semmler said.
“They haven’t found us a lacrosse coach yet, but they’re looking to do it,” he said.
He added that he’s had conversations “with a number of college-level coaches” who have expressed interest in coming to Mercy.
Practices for spring sports start March 3.
Another organization that the school brought in is Fundamental Sports Training, a Westbury company that specializes in basketball and baseball/softball training.
“It’s going to give us an ability to expose our school to a larger number of young people that might be considering a Catholic education,” Mr. Mastronardi said.
One of the founders of Fundamental Sports Training is Skip Gehring, who lives on the North Fork and whose children have attended Mercy. Mr. Gehring, who has been a coach at Mercy, appears to be the likely replacement as varsity baseball coach now that Mr. Meier has resigned.
FST is already hosting a tryout at Mercy this weekend for an Amateur Athletic Union basketball team. Tryouts are scheduled both Saturday and Sunday for the next two weekends, according the company’s website.
One parent raised a concern about whether the school would begin recruiting students to Mercy. Guidelines from Section XI and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association prohibit schools from actively recruiting students for athletics.
According to the NYSPHSAA handbook, “evidence of undue influence includes, but is not limited to, personal contact by coaches and sponsors in an attempt to persuade transfer …”
Mr. Mastronardi steadfastly denied that the school would recruit.
“We all know recruiting goes on,” he said. “Recruiting goes on big time in many different schools. As long as we are a sanctioned Section XI sports program or a Catholic High School Athletic Association team, we cannot recruit players. Our purpose here is to expose children — that’s why we’re going after the 7- to 12-year-olds in our camp — to expose them to our coaching staff, our facilities and our philosophies.”
Part of the concern parents raised at the meeting centered on Mr. Mastronardi’s administrative credentials and his dual role as a full-time New York City firefighter. In 2013, he earned more than $150,000 as a lieutenant in the FDNY, according to public records. Mr. Semmler said in two years, Mr. Mastronardi expects to finish his career in the fire department.
“Up to this point, his performance level and proficiency have been greater than either of the previous two athletic directors’,” Mr. Semmler said.
One woman who spoke at the meeting questioned whether Mr. Mastronardi had a coaching certificate.
Her comment sparked a heated back-and-forth, with several parents yelling.
Mr. Mastronardi went on to give his educational background, which includes a physical education degree from Hofstra University and “graduate credits” from Villanova University in education administration. He said he has two more years to complete course work for his coaching license.
Before his position at Eastport, Mr. Mastronardi coached two years at South Side High School, compiling a 3-13 record. The school opted to not bring him back in 2011, according to an article in the Long Island Herald. He then compiled an 11-14 record over three seasons at Eastport, including a 7-1 regular season in 2013.
Mr. Mastronardi said as athletic director he’ll attend as many games as he can across all sports. To monitor the programs, he said, coaches will be required to file daily practice schedules and insert offensive and defensive plays for their particular sport.
“We’re going to have some very strict oversight over our coaches,” he said.
For both Mr. Doroski and Mr. Meier, coaching at Mercy was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
“I’ve thought about this opportunity since the day I walked out of there as a graduate,” said Mr. Doroski, who compiled an 11-15 record in three years as head coach. “I worked really hard to get to the point where I felt I would be a competent head coach. I felt truly blessed to have the opportunity to work at Mercy.”
Mr. Meier added: “I was put in that position when I was 22 years old, which is a great opportunity. I kind of got to grow into that position. I wouldn’t take that time back for anything.”
In the weeks since word spread that Mr. Doroski would not be retained as varsity football coach, he’s received an outpouring of support from players past and present, parents and alumni.
Mr. Doroski then turned the conversation toward the players, the current students who will need to regroup and focus their attention on the upcoming season next fall.
“There’s a group of young men here and they need to be able to move forward,” he said. “With or without me, they’re still going to be Mercy football players.”