Iowa City West tennis players leave team after feeling bullied by coach

IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG) – Eight out of nine eligible players from Iowa City West girls tennis team elected not to return. West High was one of the top teams in girls tennis in 2021, going to the state tournament.

Three players from that team said their coach, Amie Villarini, was intimidating, made them feel uncomfortable, and crossed physical boundaries.

“There were times that I would call my teammates and tell them I want to quit,” said Jay Mascardo, a junior from West High.

Mascardo said Villarini’s coaching style was discouraging, more like bullying.

“Seeing a coach make my teammates cry in front of everyone was sickening,” Mascardo said. “I just felt like I couldn’t express how I was feeling because I was scared she wouldn’t be understanding that she would belittle me in front of my teammates.”

Jay’s older sister and doubles partner Caroline says they feared punishment if they brought up their concerns.

“Retaliation is a strong word,” Caroline said. “If I would try to stand up for my teammates, then in some way shape or form I’d be punished whether that was like sitting out during a meet or getting moved down in the lineup”

The players said that environment made other moments painful and anxiety-inducing. One junior, Ella De Young described Coach Villarini helping to rub sunscreen on her without asking.

“She (rubbed sunscreen) all the way down the leg and the entire time nothing would come out of my mouth,” De Young said. “I was just screaming in my head like ‘actually make it stop I just felt like so helpless.’”

De Young said the touching was not sexual but it exacerbated the anxiety, distrust, and fear she says the coach had created with her.

“She made me uncomfortable the entire season I was always afraid to be by her,” De Young said. “I hated how she made me feel and even more so how she made my teammates feel.”

The players said Villarini did not take their mental health into account.

“I was viewed more so as a like a piece to win a game, win a meet, than a person,” Caroline said.

“Every single time I would be on the court and maybe hit a few balls, but then like just start crying cause I couldn’t handle it,” De Young said.

The players and their families brought their concerns to athletic director Craig Huegel in June, leading to a school district investigation, led by Director of Equity & Employee Relations Eric Howard.

A four-month investigation found the coach’s actions were *not* over-the-line. The touching of players was never sexual in nature. It also said Coach Vilarini’s actions did not meet the district’s definition of bullying or harassment. The former players said that definition needs to change.

“Our coming forward with our concerns and making those concerns known and not really having anything come of that is the most upsetting to me,” Caroline said.

The district hosted a meeting with players and parents in February. Mediated by the district’s ombudsperson, it was meant to provide closure, but the players say it only made things worse.

“None of it brought any of us closure,” De Young said. “It was just false hope, and didn’t provide us anything of substance there was nothing.”

“Just to be deemed unfounded and Amie gets to keep her job,” Jay said. “(to be) constantly reminded that it’ll be really difficult for you to find your love of tennis again, to even pick up a racket again.”

The district and coach Villarini decline an on-camera interview. ICCSD provided a statement saying “We take allegations of this nature very seriously and we are committed to ensuring the safety and wellness of our students and staff.

They said they could not provide more specific details because it was a personnel matter.

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