There are worse ways a football game could end

I still have people talking to me about the 24-21 win by Bishop Hartley over Steubenville in the Division IV state championship game on Dec. 2.

“What do you think?” they ask.

“It was a great high school football game.”

Too many people want to find a scapegoat.

“Big Red should have won,” I have been told.

Tell that to the Hartley players, coaches and fans.

There are mistakes in every high school athletic contest — coaches, players and referees.

It’s just the way it is.

Eventually, one team makes one more play than the other team.

That’s the bottom line.

Of course, you could have been the football team from Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Ill., on Nov. 18.

It had a 10-7 lead over Plainfield North in the Class 7A state semifinal, the ball at its 15-yard line and four seconds left in the game.

Fenwick quarterback Jacob Keller took the snap and hurled a fourth-down pass downfield as time expired. He was flagged for intentional grounding.

Instead of the game being over, as per the rules, the referees gave Plainfield North an untimed down after marking off the penalty.

I’m not quite sure how that happened, but it did.

Plainfield North kicked a game-tying field goal and won it, 18-17, in overtime.

The game should have ended on the intentional grounding call as, per rules, a loss-of-down penalty does not lead to an untimed down.

Illinois High School Association Executive Director Craig Anderson released a statement the day after the semifinal victory by Plainfield North.

“On the final play of the fourth quarter in today’s IHSA Class 7A Semifinal Football game between Fenwick High School and Plainfield North High School, an error was made by the officiating crew, which resulted in an untimed down being awarded to Plainfield North.

On the untimed down, Plainfield North tied the contest with a field goal and then went on to win the game in overtime. Per Rule 3-3-4 in the 2016 NFHS Football Rules Book, the game should have concluded on the final play of regulation and the untimed down should not have been awarded.

IHSA by-law 6.033 clearly states that “the decisions of game officials shall be final; protests against the decision of a game official shall not be reviewed by the board of directors.”

Given that rule, the contest result shall remain final with Plainfield North advancing to the Class 7A State Championship.

On behalf of the IHSA, I express my sincerest apologies to Coach Nudo and his players and coaching staff, as well as to the entire Fenwick administration and community. I understand that it will be difficult to find a silver lining in this particular situation, but I do hope that Fenwick takes pride in all they accomplished today and this season.

There is no doubt that the crew assigned to officiate this contest by the IHSA should have known this rule and they were forthcoming about the error in conversations after the game.

The crew also understands that there will be an assessment of their performance and consequences from the IHSA as a result of this error.

We will continue to be proactive in our efforts to educate our officials, while also working with our membership and board of directors, of which Fenwick Principal Peter Groom is a valued member, to evaluate IHSA by-laws and policy related to officiating.”

Fenwick chose to fight the IHSA ruling in court.

“Here is my argument,” Fenwick coach Gene Nudo told the Chicago Tribune in a story on sports.yahoo.com by Jay Hart. “There will never ever be a protest for an egregious act as long as that rule is there. It’s a great way to hide behind something — it is final and that is it. How is that the right thing to do?

“I’m not one of these guys always banging on the IHSA. I get it, they don’t have an easy gig over there. In this instance they had a chance to right a wrong and they didn’t. I get it — how do you tell Plainfield North they didn’t win? But you know what? They didn’t.

“This in no way is a reflection on Plainfield North. I kind of feel bad for them. It takes away from their moment. Those kids worked hard over there also. But the Fenwick kids won it fair and square, and the fact that this (apology) comes out afterward is of no consolation to me or our kids.”

The ruling was upheld in court on Nov. 23 and the IHSA released another statement.

Today’s decision by the Honorable Kathleen G. Kennedy in the Circuit Court of Chicago to uphold the result of the IHSA Class 7A Semifinal Football game is not a victory. There is no celebration and there are no winners in this circumstance. It is simply a resolution.

The Fenwick High School community has been dealt a pair of devastating blows over the past few days, while Plainfield North had a historic moment shrouded in controversy simply for following the rules provided for them, first by the game officials, and then by the IHSA.

We will move forward now, in the short-term with eight state championship football games at the University of Illinois this weekend. In the long-run, it is our job as an association, board of directors and membership to look at our policies and rules to see if and how we might be able to prevent instances like this in the future.

We appreciate Judge Kennedy’s ruling from the perspective that we believe it is vital for membership organizations like the IHSA to be able to self-govern within the rules set by our member schools. Judge Kennedy recognized the historic precedent that would have resulted if she had overturned the outcome of the game based on an officiating error. This is the same pitfall our membership foresaw in originally approving the by-law, and that our board of directors recognized in their decision not to consider an appeal.

East St. Louis defeated Plainfield North, 26-13, for the state championship.

(Mathison, a Weirton resident, is the sports editor for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at mmathison@heraldstaronline.com and followed on Twitter @HSDTsports.)


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