Students plead for coach's job, union pledges help


AUSTINTOWN — Heidi Soriano is afraid she might have failed her coach.

Through sobs, she told the board of education Wednesday that she believes she has done so if she was unable to persuade it to keep Melody Rice as softball coach in the school district.

“And I am sorry,” she said before a meeting room packed with supporters of Rice. “Coach Rice has never failed me.”

The school board, after an hour-long closed session, had just voted unanimously to suspend Rice, starting today, until it finishes considering whether to terminate her supplemental coaching contract. Soriano, other players and softball parents confronted the board over its decision.

They called Rice a dedicated coach who knows the game and is willing to work hard.

Her love for the game is contagious, said player Erica Kotel. “We are telling you: We want her as our coach,” she said.

Kotel, Soriano and other players say they are frustrated because their season starts soon — Feb. 20. Instead of focusing on offseason training or a candy fund-raiser for a hitting clinic that was ultimately canceled because of the situation, they were facing “confusion and chaos.” Girls said they found out about the board’s intentions three weeks ago, but no one would respond to their questions about why Rice was in trouble, they said.

“We’ve been emailing, and we didn’t get responses back,” said Alex Brinkman, a junior who plays third base. She said players emailed every school board member and also tried to talk to Fitch High principal Doug McGlynn.

The board said in a prepared resolution only that Rice’s conduct constitutes grounds for termination of the contract. After the meeting, board president Michael Creatore said Rice was insubordinate on two occasions and that the team had lost many older players because of her coaching style.

“That’s completely false,” said Rice in a phone interview after the meeting. “I am very surprised and shocked and dismayed about the decision the board of education has made concerning my termination. I have confidence in my coaching abilities and I have tremendous support from a number of people, from past players and parents to present players and parents and even future players and parents.

“I hope justice will prevail in this situation.”

Players said that five seniors left softball this year. There are 14 varsity players, they said, and 30 girls in the program. Kotel said there were hard feelings over a canceled spring break trip this year; Rice wanted to raise money instead for new uniforms and equipment.

One of the seniors who left is Creatore’s daughter, Alyssa. Another board member, Rich Zimmermann, said he is forcing his daughter Amanda to stay on the team even though she wants to quit.

Creatore said he has had numerous complaints from parents about Rice, and that his daughter did not want to return to the team because of “treatment from the coach.”

The board also provided a copy of a letter it sent to Rice regarding the termination of her contract.

The letter refers to students being subjected to intimidation, harassment or embarrassment by Rice.

One parent told the district that his daughter “truly loved the game” and it was hard for her to quit, the letter asserted.

The Austintown Education Association, the teachers union, will help Rice, union president Sandy DeCerbo told the board. She questioned whether it was fair for Creatore and Zimmermann to vote on the issue when their daughters were involved in the softball program, and she said that taxpayers will foot the bill for the legal fight.

Rice was not at the meeting. This year would be her third year as coach. Before that, she was an assistant for one year. She has been with the district for four years, and her father, Denny Rice, is principal at Frank Ohl Middle School.

She is a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Austintown Middle School.

She has the opportunity now to present her case on why her coaching contract shouldn’t be terminated. Creatore said the board should make a final decision in 60 days.

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