By Kyle LoJacono
NORTHDALE – When Heather Castle was named the Gaither High School softball coach before the 2009-10 school year, things seemed to be near perfect.
Castle graduated from Gaither in 2004 and was returning after coaching at King High School in 2009.
“It was really my dream to come back and coach at Gaither, but this was even worse than never getting the job,” Castle said. “I had the position and lost it before I even had a chance.”
Castle was let go as the Cowboys coach Jan. 4, the first day after the winter break in Hillsborough County.
“Gaither High School has elected to move in a different direction with its softball program,” said Henry Strapp, Gaither athletic director. “As a result, Ms. Castle was released as our softball coach. Mr. Jerry Murray was hired as her replacement.”
Strapp had nothing more to say.
Murray is the head of the science department at Gaither and was named the coach within a week of Castle being released.
“I wasn’t given a reason or written warning,” Castle said. “Before the break Mr. Strapp just said ‘have a nice vacation,’ and then on Monday he told me he needed to talk with me. All he could tell me is some of the girls said I was too negative.”
According to Linda Cobbe, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County, a coaching position must be advertised for at least a week before it is filled unless the replacement is already on staff at the school. Also, because Castle was not a teacher at Gaither, the school is not required to give a reason for the termination.
Gaither principal Marie Whelan told Cobbe that Strapp and some of the players had concerns with Castle as the coach, but did not go into detail.
“I can’t remember off the top of my head the last time I’ve heard of a coach being let go before they coached a game in Hillsborough County,” said Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson. “It isn’t common I’d say.”
Despite the claim that Castle was negative, the coach did positive things during her one season at King. She started the Principal and Coaches Top Athlete Award to honor players who worked hard on the field and in the classroom.
It could be that Castle was negative around her players, but it is possible something else was going on.
“This is all about Ms. McGrath wanting to have Al Alcala back as head coach,” Castle said.
Lori McGrath is the mother of Kristen and Meagan McGrath, who are twins and pitchers for the Cowboys.
“From what I’ve seen, whatever Ms. McGrath wants, she gets at the school,” Castle said. “Any little thing I did that wasn’t how Al Alcala did it and was wrong to her. I know everyone at the school is saying Jerry Murray is the head coach, but it is really Al Alcala,”
As of Feb. 8, the team’s Web site, which can be accessed from the Gaither’s site of gaither.mysdhc.org, says Alcala is the head coach. The first sentence on the coaching staff link on the team’s Web site states, “Gaither High School has announced that Al Alcala will be returning to GHS for the 2010 softball season.”
However, Alcala cannot be the coach because his coaching certification has expired. Alcala could not be reached for additional comment, but has said in the past he will be the one coaching the team.
Alcala coached the Cowboys for three years before resigning after the 2008 season. At the time, Alcala, who is a Tampa Fire Rescue investigator, said he needed to spend more time at work after he thought he was getting a promotion.
It was later found that Alcala had been falsifying time cards, which said he was on duty while he was coaching Gaither at games. The promotion never happened, and Alcala was told he can expect no promotion with the department ever. Gaither never said the falsified time cards had anything to do with his resignation.
Castle said Mr. Strapp told her Alcala was taking over as the coach when she was released and only installed Murray after the fact to “cover Gaither’s tracks” of the actual hiring.
“Alcala had some good years with Gaither and Lori McGrath wants him back,” said Bob Gambino, assistant with Castle at King, who was going to be assistant at Gaither. “The athletic director at Gaither wants to hide any kind of problem as fast as possible in my opinion. So he played a political game to get Ms. McGrath what she wanted without having to answer why Al is back.”
The other issue was not guaranteeing certain people playing time.
“Heather said no one will get a spot unless they earn it, and that made Ms. McGrath mad in my opinion,” Gambino said. “She wanted her daughters to be told they would play even if they were out of shape or playing badly. What kind of a lesson is that for kids?”
McGrath said she does not speak to newspapers when attempted to be reached for comment. However, when Kristen and Meagan committed to play at the University of Alabama at Birmingham last October, McGrath said, “I’m really excited for their senior season. I’m looking forward to it.”
This may not be the first time McGrath has used her influence to terminate a coach. Laura Wolf coached the Cowboys in 2009, but resigned after one year.
“From everything I’ve heard, Ms. McGrath got Laura to resign,” Castle said. “There is no coincidence to me that two coaches were replaced in basically the same way. Now they are trying to hide who the real coach is.”
At the very least, there is some confusion over who the actual coach is.
“There was no reason behind Gaither releasing me as head coach, except the fact that Ms. McGrath wanted complete control of the softball team and was allowed to do so through Mr. Strapp,” Castle said. “My release was unfair and unjust.”