Rootstown will keep its popular soccer coach following emotional appeal from players and parents

Image of several young women seated at a high school cafeteria table during a board meeting
Members of the Rootstown girls soccer team attended the school board meeting May 16, 2022, to support the extension of their coach's contract. Owen MacMillan/The Portager

Members of the Rootstown High School girls soccer team were in tears Monday night asking the Rootstown Board of Education to extend the contract of their head coach, Jason Opritza.

“I’m coming to you guys as a previous captain of the Rootstown soccer team to ask the question of why Jason is not having his contract renewed,” said junior Carlee Clifford. “When I was told Jason wouldn’t have his contract renewed, I’ll be honest, I cried.”

Much of the girls soccer team was seated together during Monday’s board meeting in the high school cafeteria, and a few of Clifford’s teammates were equally emotional about wanting to keep their coach, who led them to their first Portage Trail Conference championship since 2013 last season and was voted conference Coach of the Year.

The board heard them and, following a 20-minute executive session, voted unanimously to bring back Opritza as head coach for the 2022-23 school year.

Prior to Monday’s meeting, the board had seemed prepared not to renew Opritza’s one-year supplemental coach’s contract, a prospect that led members of the team and several parents come forward and voice their disapproval.

“I’m speaking on behalf of the girls team right now, and the girls who will be in the program a few years from now, we deserve this coach,” Clifford said. “Jason is the hardest-working coach I have ever had. He is caring and smart and has the best sense of humor with our team.”

Board President Craig Mullaly said it bothered him that Opritza had supposedly missed or been late to practices during the season, and he had met with the coach personally to discuss his future.

Opritza said that on the few occasions he was late for the start of a practice (because of his work schedule at his previous place of employment), it was always during conditioning or warmups. In those instances, he said, his assistant coach, Shana Varner, was there to oversee the start of practice until he arrived.

He said there had been no complaints before March, and he didn’t believe any of them came from his players.

“I had to wonder why I was being picked on for this. Any coach has assistants who can lead the team, so why am I being targeted when my players are having fun and buying in?” he said.

Members of the team dismissed any notion of Opritza being an absentee coach.

“This is the best coach that we have ever had, and one practice that he didn’t come to is no reason to not renew,” said girls soccer player Grace Welch, referring to an optional practice last year that Varner conducted in place of Opritza.

Brenda Iarussi, mother of two Rootstown alumna, said she had three concerns about how the school board went about this process: that she thought the board had discussed the decision outside of meetings; that the school board had taken away a decision that should have been up to the athletic director, Keith Waesch; and that it wasn’t the board’s responsibility to make the employment decision at all.

“Is any of this ethical? Who knows?” Iarussi said. “But it is questionable — questionable enough that maybe the Ohio School Board Association should come speak with you people because what you are doing is wrong.”

She was met with thanks and applause from the team.

People close to the decision had speculated that the board wanted to replace Opritza with Brock Curall, the husband of board member Jennifer Curall.

“I have a concern about what I’ve read,” said Leslie Christensen, also a mother of former Rootstown students. “I would like to know what the board policy is when there is a family member or perceived conflict of interest between a board member and the topic of a board [decision].”

The hiring of a replacement coach was not part of the discussion, so Superintendent Andrew Hawkins said that Jennifer Curall wasn’t violating any board regulations by voting on Opritza’s contract renewal.

As with any coach, Opritza’s new contract is good for just one year, meaning Clifford and her teammates will have their coach for at least one more season.

Rootstown faced another controversy relating to the school board and coaches in 2020 when football head coach Troy Spiker resigned over the school board’s decision to reverse his dismissal of a player who had used racial slurs directed at teammates.

This was still fresh in the mind of one resident, who spoke up to tell the board “don’t screw this up like you did football.” 

A few hours after the meeting, Opritza received a call from Mullaly formally offering him his job back.

“People have asked me ‘why would you want to go back’ after I’ve dealt with this,” Opritza said. “And what I told them is it’s about the girls. I can’t say I’m fighting for them, then they get out to the meeting and fight for me but I say, ‘No, I was treated badly, I’m going to leave.’ Because then it’s not about them.”

Opritza was initially offered the job last year on May 19, and almost exactly a year later he says he is vindicated and ready to get back to work.

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Owen MacMillan is a reporter with the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University, producing local news coverage in partnership with The Portager.