It was supposed to be a night of fun. Instead it turned into an unsettling experience that a church pastor said left her congregation shaken.
The sad part is that this was a girls high school basketball game.
Many among about 150 adults who came to cheer the Southeast girls team last week in the Class 5A region semifinal at St. Petersburg Lakewood say they were subjected to insults and feared for their safety.
Rosemary Backer, pastor of the Gloria Del Church in Anna Maria Island, said all but two of the group of approximately 50 people she brought were senior citizens.
Backer and others were upset that Lakewood school officials ordered Southeast fans to sit in a small section of the bleachers behind the Seminoles bench. Lakewood fans were given access to the rest of the gymnasium.
She said it made them easy targets for rowdy fans.
“It was a recipe for disaster,” Backer said. “It’s terrible to pack people into a gym like sardines. They had students there wearing football jerseys who were taunting the people who cheered for Southeast. They weren’t just cheering for their own team. I am going to send a letter to the FHSAA.”
Backer and others said several of the players wearing the football jerseys were shaking their fists at the group of senior citizens. They said they complained to Lakewood school officials in attendance and asked them to intervene, but it did little good.
Sitting on the other side of the basketball court gave me a clear view of the action. In particular, the antics of two students wearing Lakewood football jerseys were extremely disturbing. They taunted and pointed fingers at Southeast fans, many of whom were elderly individuals who looked frightened and said nothing back.
Robert Vicari, Lakewood High principal, said he told those students to stop and they did. Backer said they did not.
There was a sign at the entrance of the gym that directed Southeast fans to sit in one small area of the bleachers. On the same side of the bleachers behind the Lakewood bench were many Lakewood supporters.
Vicari defended his actions, including his decision to put members of the school’s football team behind the girls bench to provide a safety buffer. That seemed to heighten tensions.
“I put my football players around the basketball team because at Southeast they had some parents who mistreated my kids, and here they had some people who mistreated my kids,” Vicari said. “I said I am going to line my kids with football players so no one is going to intimidate my kids with a bunch of football players behind them.”
Many would say the decision to put 15-, 16- and 17-year-old high school football players in a role they are not trained or equipped to handle is reckless. It exacerbates a potentially volatile situation. If Vicari was afraid for his girls, then sit school administrators or security guards behind the team.
“I would think the principal would want to rethink that. You would not want to use high school students as your security,” FHSAA Executive Director Roger Dearing said. “Number one, you don’t want to put the high school students in danger and, number two, they are not licensed and not protected and insured, and that would seem to create a different level of liability. I don’t want to second-guess the principal, but I would hope they would research to have other ways to take care of that rather than using high school students.”
Backer is irate because she says it was the football players who needed to be policed.
“The football players were the ones doing the taunting. Anyway, you can’t use them to provide protection. ... It is like using free labor instead of paying for police or security,” she said.
Vicari said he instructed Southeast fans to sit on one side of the gym with the Lakewood High football players and some coaches on the same side behind the Lakewood bench. He said the rest of the Lakewood fans were on the other side of the gym.
Backer disputes that claim.
“The Lakewood fans were all over the gym,” she said. “There were dozens of Lakewood fans sitting up by us. But I am asking who is policing the football team? Who is keeping them under control?
“This was a potentially bad situation in a hot gym, and tempers are tense because they crowded people into a corner. It was wrong.”
Longtime Southeast head coach John Harder stressed he was not upset that Lakewood won the game; his concern was with how his fans were treated. Among the fans were his 85-year-old mother and his wife.
“They were the better team and would beat us nine out of 10 times; that is not the issue,” Harder said. “About a third of our crowd was from my church group, where I met my wife. My wife and mother usually sit on the opposite side of our bench, but they were made to sit behind our bench. I couldn’t see them and feared for their safety. My mother was subject to abuse.”
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112.