Police probe allegations against Peters Township football coach

| Friday, Jan. 27, 2012

Peters police are investigating a claim that the head coach of the Peters Township High School football team put players with concussion symptoms back into games and practices, Chief Harry Freucht said on Thursday.

"We're looking into it," Freucht said. "But it just got started. ... I'm not going to predict what charges, if any, will be filed. It's just too early."

School district Superintendent Nina Zetty called the allegations against varsity football coach Richard Piccinini "unfounded." Piccinini, 43, of Green Tree could not be reached for comment.

"The police opened the investigation because someone in Peters Township reported it to (Washington County) Children and Youth Services," which reported it to police, Zetty said. "The police did not initiate the investigation for any other reason."

Lori Harbert, director of Washington County CYS, referred calls to Peters police.

A crowd of parents and students attended a meeting last week in which the Peters Township School Board voted 6-3 to retain Piccinini as coach. They turned out because they said the board did not thoroughly investigate claims that Piccinini had told injured players to play.

Physical therapist Mark Mortland, who has provided physical therapy and athletic training services for the district since 2003, sent e-mails to Zetty beginning Nov. 30, saying he "personally witnessed ... the most deplorable, disrespectful and disgraceful behavior from a head coach in any sport I have ever seen."

"I have been providing athletic training services to high schools, college and professional sporting teams for 25 years and have never seen anything like this year's head football coach," he wrote in the e-mail, which circulated to football parents and which the Tribune-Review obtained.

Mortland said Piccinini interfered with the job of athletic trainers as they treated injured players. Mortland, who remains a district employee, could not be reached for comment.

Zetty said she took the issue to high school Athletic Director Brian Geyer and Principal Lori Pavlik after Mortland's first e-mail.

Geyer and Pavlik referred questions to district spokeswoman Shelly Belcher, who said administrators looked into the claims.

"Any concerns regarding the safety of our kids are taken very seriously," Belcher said. "What they found was really while injuries are part of athletics, and according to (another) trainer for the student teams, no student went back in to play without being (cleared to do so)."

School board member Bill Merrell, one of the three who voted against retaining Piccinini, said board members discussed Mortland's allegations against Piccinini "extensively" in executive session on Jan. 18.

"We were told they had looked into it, but I wasn't privy to any investigations that were supposedly done," he said. "A third of the board voted in the minority. I would make an assumption that maybe there was some doubt."

Michele Bittel, a football player's parent, said she does not believe that Mortland, who served for 16 years as the Pittsburgh Penguins physical therapist and head athletic trainer, would say anything negative about the coach without proof.

"I have a lot of respect for Mark and feel he is a professional in his community," Bittel said. "If they trust him with Sidney Crosby, I trust him with my son."

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