Fenwick deserves to play in state final game, not Plainfield North

Nobody wants the outcome of a high school football game that starts on a Saturday night under the lights being determined in a courtroom on a Wednesday morning.

Nobody likes a coach's decision eventually leading to a judge's ruling. Nobody welcomes lawyers affecting locker rooms.

But when adults fail kids in a profound way, the courts must intervene — and that sums up the sorry situation involving the Fenwick and Plainfield North football teams. At 9 a.m. Wednesday in Circuit Court of Cook County at the Daley Center, Judge Kathleen Kennedy will consider the lawsuit filed Monday by Fenwick seeking "declaratory, injunctive and other relief against the IHSA.''

In layman's terms, Fenwick didn't lose the IHSA Class 7A semifinal to Plainfield North, 18-17 in overtime, as much as a bad officiating crew and the IHSA Board of Directors refused to let them win it. Fenwick deserves to play in the state final game Saturday, not Plainfield North.

Those are my words, not a lawyer's or a judge's, and they are offered with the hope that somebody finally does the right thing about a high school sporting event now memorable for the wrong reasons.

We all have those enduring high school sports memories. That's what makes this story so relatable, the way it takes many of us back to a moment that introduced our teenage selves to adversity. For me, it was a bitter high school football loss 31 Novembers ago on a cold, blustery night in Elkhart County (Ind.). For the players on either Fenwick or Plainfield North, it always will be last Saturday night in River Grove — a memory bound to leave one team bewildered for years to come.

But above all, shouldn't integrity come out on top?

The IHSA acknowledged the officials erred on the final play of regulation — enforcing a penalty that gave the ball back to Plainfield North for a field goal with no time on the clock to force overtime — yet its collective leadership lacked the resolve to correct the mistake. The IHSA Board of Directors cited bylaw 6.033 that states "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.''

Common sense, be damned.

This wasn't a pass-interference penalty late in the first half or even a scoring play early in the fourth quarter. This was the wrong call on the last play of the game. There was no domino effect, only the truth being toppled. Technically, nothing that happened after that call matters because the game was over. The game was over, ending after four quarters and 48 minutes. Fenwick scored 10 points, Plainfield North 7.

To run out the final four seconds on the clock, Fenwick snapped the ball on its 15-yard line and had Friars quarterback Jacob Keller throw the ball deep down the field. Yes, Fenwick coach Gene Nudo should have called for Keller to take a safety. Yes, Nudo should have had Keller run around the backfield for four seconds instead of heave the ball into oblivion. But those truths don't justify the officials making a mistake that ultimately was unfair to both teams, schools and communities.

After being awarded the ball at Fenwick's 5-yard line for one more play with no time on the clock, Plainfield North's Connor Peplow kicked a 22-yard field goal that sent the game into an overtime session that never should have happened. The National Federation of High School rules state a loss-of-down penalty, such as intentional grounding, that occurs while time expires shall not lead to an untimed down. Nobody disputes game officials ignored that rule, as a statement from IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson late Saturday night confirmed.

"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,'' Anderson's statement read.

Officials make mistakes. This isn't on the poor guys in striped shirts as much as the body that regulates them. Replay continually becomes a bigger part of the checks and balances for officials in NCAA and NFL games, in large part, to correctly enforce rules and legitimize outcomes. There is no shame in an official erring — especially a high school ref who isn't paid enough to withstand the abuse. But the indignity came when the IHSA inexcusably passed on a chance to provide the legitimacy its leaders readily acknowledge this result lacked because of the mistaken penalty. The life lesson in this isn't sue to get your way as much as fight for the truth.

Fenwick's appeal cited a 2008 case in which the Mississippi High School Activities Association reinstated a team into the playoffs three days after a similar enforcement of an incorrect call on the final play of regulation allowed a team to score an apparent game-winning touchdown. Also in 2008, the IHSA established precedent by overturning results of the Illinois wrestling tournament three days after Edwardsville celebrated beating Granite City by half a point. A recount revealed Granite City actually won 2171/2-217 and the IHSA — after initially clinging to a rule that says results must be corrected within 30 minutes of the end of a tournament — rightly reversed the outcome.

In that case, the Edwardsville coach detected the scoring error himself and contacted the Granite City coach in a display of the type of sportsmanship we all want to define youth sports. Likewise, Plainfield North officials have an opportunity to make a bold, principled statement on behalf of honesty and fairness by forfeiting a game the IHSA agrees it lost in regulation.

They should seize it before a judge has to.

dhaugh@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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