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Attorney: Soccer training not school program

CAMPBELL — The attorney for Campbell High School soccer coach Phil Atsas wants 12 criminal charges dismissed, saying he thinks the police department “doesn’t know how soccer works in this community.”

Campbell police charged Atsas last week with six felony counts of theft in office and six misdemeanor counts of theft by deception. He is accused of collecting money from the families of soccer players for training at the Tri-County Sports Complex on Logangate Road in Liberty in 2017.

Atsas, who is also a longtime Campbell elementary and middle school physical education teacher, has been on paid leave from his job since Sept. 10 and is prohibited from entering school property or participating in sports because of separate school-related discliplinary matters.

The Campbell Police Department investigated after Matthew Bowen, Campbell schools superintendent, advised the department Nov. 19 of his concerns that Atsas may have “possibly stolen money from the soccer program and kept the money for his personal gain,” according to a Campbell police report.

Atsas was scheduled for a preliminary hearing Friday in Campbell Muncipal Court. His attorney, Scott Essad of Boardman, said he intended to question witnesses in hopes Judge Patrick Cunning would find insufficient evidence to bind the case over to a county grand jury.

But Cunning recused himself from the case Friday, saying it’s because he knows Atsas. The judge told the large number of people in the courtroom that the hearing would be reset with another judge. The new date will be set after the Ohio Supreme Court announces who the visiting judge will be.

Essad told The Vindicator outside of court, “I think (law enforcement officials) didn’t fundamentally understand how soccer works in this community, and instead just assumed because Campbell kids were playing soccer under the name Campbell, it was some sort of school program while it never ever was.”

Messages left on Friday with the Campbell Police Department and Campbell Law Director Brian Macala were not returned.

A Campbell police report says Bowen advised Campbell police that parents should not be charged fees to play soccer because the school district covers all fees.

An officer contacted parents whose children participated in soccer from 2017 through 2019, and they confirmed they had given Atsas cash for soccer training. “Those moneys were never turned over and deposited into the school athletic fund,” a police report says.

Bowen said in a memo to police that based on parent interviews with school officials, parents paid money to Atsas for a preseason training camp at Tri-County Sports Complex in 2017 and one in 2018, but “the bill was paid in full by the Campbell City Schools.”

After Friday’s hearing, about 30 people left the courtroom, many of them there to support Atsas. Others received a subpoena requiring them to testify.

Two said they have known Atsas for decades because he has been one of the biggest supporters of soccer in the community.

Kaliopy Vavoulas of Campbell said she attended to support Atsas because he has a “big heart” and spent his own money to provide soccer equipment and opportunities for children to play soccer.

“He is so passionate and giving to the kids to make them happy and to keep them out of trouble,” she said.

None of the people interviewed were able to address the money parents paid to Atsas for training at TCSC in 2017 that resulted in the police investigation. Campbell offers only one team at the high school level with boys and girls on it.

Niki Koullias of Campbell, who has three children who have played for Atsas for many years, said, “If he did any fundraising, it was used for training. I don’t believe he put it into something for himself.”

erunyan@tribtoday.com