Heights ousts varsity softball coach

By Calem Illig

For the Mirror

PATTON — After a former Cambria Heights varsity softball coach pleaded to board members to allow him to continue coaching, the district instead decided to hire Drew Thomas as the girls softball coach for the 2018 season.

Eric White, who coached the Cambria Heights softball team for six years from 2012-2018, was not rehired.

Thomas, who was recently hired as the district’s maintenance director, previously served as an assistant coach under White.

Brian Lobick was voted to continue serving as assistant coach.

In a speech to board members before a public vote on Tuesday, White said he had been informed that his job was in question due to his assistant coach, David James, using profane language with players.

White said those allegations were untrue.

“I wanted to create a positive environment to help female athletes thrive,” White said. “I never saw him mistreat a player or parent, ever.”

White said he had also been told by the district that parents blamed him for inconsistencies with statistics submitted to organizations that compile all-star teams.

Even though Thomas and Lobick were tasked with recording statistics, White said he was being blamed for “something out of his hands.”

“There was a cutoff date that we had to submit our statistics by,” White said. “Because we had games rained out, we played four more games after the cutoff date. Some of the players’ statistics were probably improved after those makeup games, but they weren’t reflected in the overall stats because of the cutoff date.”

James said statistics from one district playoff game also were unreported, a task for which he said Thomas was responsible.

After denying allegations of disrespecting players and corrupting player statistics, White ridiculed the district for failing to survey or question players about their opinions.

“No player was ever interviewed,” White said. “How was the district able to make an informed decision?”

After hearing that his job was in jeopardy, White said that he had received a recommendation from high school principal Ken Kerchenske and athletic director James Kane to continue his position during his annual exit interview.

Per board policy, recommendations on coaching personnel cannot be made public and are only to be presented to the board in executive session.

Kerchenske said he could not comment on recommendations, as those are discussed in executive session prior to the board’s vote.

Under White, the Lady Highlanders won 45 games and qualified for the District 6 playoffs in each of his six seasons. The Lady Highlanders also won the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference championship in 2015.

Several former players were in attendance, defending White and James.

“Eric is a fantastic coach,” four-year starter Kat Cox said. “The allegations against him are ridiculous. He has always been fair and clear on his expectations.”

As far as allegations against James, Cox said he was “always a respectable coach.”

“He would never do anything to harm a girl’s position,” Cox said. “People who say they are unfit to coach know nothing about the sport.”

Kara Cordell, who was coached by James and White from 2011 to 2014, said movements to change coaches were “not fair.”

“They were both fantastic coaches,” Cordell said. “The claims against them are absolutely ridiculous.”

Both players were displeased with the board’s decision.

“I am vastly disappointed in the Cambria Heights School Board on their decision to eradicate Eric White,” Cox said.

James said he would not accept a new position with the board, citing he “doesn’t deal with politics.”

He wanted to speak at the board meeting to vouch for White, but the board did not allow James to speak.

“(White) was a state trooper and a United States Marine,” James said after the meeting. “He’s the most loyal person I know. What the board did to him was beyond disrespectful.”

In a speech to the district’s board of directors before voting, White pointed fingers at Thomas and claimed that Thomas was the one who spread rumors of mistreating players and corrupting statistics.

“He personally threatened to get me fired,” White said.

White claimed that not only was Thomas trying to have him fired, but that placing allegations against him was a move by Thomas to take his position.

“The same person that threatened me was placed in charge,” White said. “It’s not right.”

Thomas, who has been coaching softball for 25 years, said that none of those accusations that White made against him were true.

“I would never undermine anyone, whether it’s a player or a coach,” Thomas said.

Thomas said that he originally planned on stepping away from the program. His daughter, Morgan, recently graduated and is no longer with the program.

“I was ready to walk away,” Thomas said. “With my daughter out of school, I was ready to be done. When the position became open, I decided to at least apply and give it a shot.”

The softball coaching position was discussed upon at an executive session-not open to the public after the board’s regular February meeting.

As one last ditch effort to earn his position back, citing his love for the program and its players, White offered to coach the team on a volunteer basis if he were retained.

Volunteering would have saved the district $3,200 per year.

After an executive session that spanned over an hour in length, a board vote open to the public followed with board recommendation for Thomas to be hired as the new softball coach.

The decision to hire Thomas was approved by a 5-4 vote.

Board members Tom Malloy, Dr. Susan Sibert, Kenneth Vescovi, Barbara Mozina, and Thomas Bearer voted yes; George Haluska, Donald Owens, Gerald Brant, and Dr. Russell Miller voted no.