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Opinion: Peach County wants a hearing, but won't win

Peach County is asking for a hearing with the Georgia High School Association's board of trustees this week over an official’s call that might’ve cost the Trojans a touchdown or even the game in their 10-6 loss to Calhoun on Friday in the Class AAA football championship.

The middle Georgia school sent GHSA executive director Robin Hines and the board of trustees a letter on Saturday asking for the meeting, superintendent Dr. Daryl Fineran confirmed Sunday. Peach County officials plan to deliver it in person again on Monday.

''We’ve got to do it for our kids,’’ Fineran said. ‘’It was a mistake made by adults that needs to be corrected by adults on Monday. You didn’t see our coaches raising Cain or kids misbehaving after the game. We’ve handled it the right way. Now it’s time for adults to get together and resolve it. I’m optimistic.’’

Symbolically, it’s a good idea.

Realistically, it has no real chance. Not a snowball’s.

The controversial play – which has garnered national attention - occurred with 3:33 left in a game that Peach County trailed 10-6. Facing fourth-and-8 and Calhoun’s 21-yard line, quarterback Antonio Gilbert threw a pass to Noah Wittington at the 5. Wittington caught the pass and took a couple of steps and reached out with the ball for the goal line.

The ball popped loose when it hit the ground. The official, not in the best position, called the pass incomplete once he saw the ball get loose. It would’ve been a Peach County touchdown or first-and-goal inside the 1.

There also is film of the play that indicates that Wittington might have stepped out of bounds before catching the pass. If the receiver is forced out, he can return and make a legal catch. If not forced, the correct call is a 15-yard penalty, and Peach County would've faced a fourth-and-23.

Like most games, the Calhoun-Peach County final had multiple questionable calls. There were three others involving potential turnovers, two that went against Calhoun. That’s not unusual.

What made this play go viral was the moment and the gravity of the game – it was the closing minutes of a tight state-championship game - and the fact that Georgia Public Broadcasting cameras were all over it and provided plain evidence that the call was wrong.

It’s appropriate that Peach County stand up for its players, coaches and fans by doing all it can to get what it believes is justice.

As principal Ken Hartley put it to the Macon Telegraph, “I just think we need to fight till we can’t fight no more.”

Peach County is not a football team. It is a high school. Its job is education. This is part of teaching life’s lessons.

Control what you can. Respectfully protest if you believe you’ve been wronged. Give credit to Calhoun, which played a great game and is a worthy champion, perhaps a victim in its own right, not getting its full due.

Peach County has done those things. At some point, expect Peach County to accept the unacceptable and move ahead with continued dignity and class.

‘’If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same,’’ an English teacher might say this week in class, loosely quoting Rudyard Kipling, ‘’yours is the earth and everything that’s in it. And – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son.’’

This is Peach County’s fate.

The GHSA will not overturn a judgment call by an official. Its bylaws – changed strictly for this purpose in October – won’t allow it.

What makes Peach County optimistic is what happened in May. The GHSA made a rare if not unprecedented exception when the board overturned the result of a baseball semifinal game between Johns Creek and Lee County. The game was tied 3-3 in the bottom of the seventh and final regulation inning.

Johns Creek received a bases-loaded walk in the seventh, apparently breaking the tie and ending the game. Lee County’s coach contended that Johns Creek’s runner on second base never touched third. Umpires agreed and disallowed the run, and the score remained 3-3. Lee County scored two runs in the top of the eighth and won.

Johns Creek lost its initial protest to the GHSA, as expected, but won an appeal to have its case heard before the GHSA’s board of trustees – and surprisingly won. The board, convinced by Johns Creek that the umpires blew it, overruled a judgment call. That decision got national attention, too.

Board president Glenn White acknowledged the ruling as exceptional: ‘’We have set a precedent, so we need to get ready because there will probably be other people coming to see us.’’

Apparently, the GHSA didn’t like that precedent and re-sealed the can of worms in October when, with little fanfare, added to its bylaw 2.92 with these choice words: ‘’Judgment calls by contest officials are not reviewable or reversible.’’

In the past, it was simply tradition that prevented the GHSA from reversing judgment calls. Now, it’s the law.

Fineran correctly points out that the board of trustees can override any bylaw for what it deems the best interest of the association.

Not likely to happen here, though. And Peach won't be the first to be disappointed.

Calhoun’s 2014 state championship also came with a questioned call as Washington County’s A.J. Gray appeared to intercept a pass, stopping Calhoun’s game-winning drive. The play was ruled an incompletion, and Calhoun won 27-20.

In March, Greater Atlanta Christian’s girls basketball team, by all evidence, was shorted a point in a playoff game against Beach that ended tied in regulation. Instead of getting the one-point victory, GAC played into overtime, and lost. Holy Innocents’ boys team lost in similar fashion in Swainsboro in 2015.

In all these cases, the losing teams had video evidence to support their contentions. Video evidence is not allowed in appeals. That’s a national rule. The GHSA won’t allow it.

In 1975, the GHSA overturned the outcome of a football semifinal game originally won by Lakeside of DeKalb County over Douglass of Atlanta. Lakeside kicked a field goal as time expired and walked off a 15-14 winner, but officials had mistakenly stopped the clock with two seconds left, allowing Lakeside time for a final play. Douglass appealed and won.

But that was a case of a rule being misapplied, not a judgment call. The GHSA agreed that time should have expired.

The Peach County game will not be played again. Judgment call.

In the business of education, Peach County will be left with having to teach those life’s lessons that scholastic sports are designed to provide.

That’s why high school sports exist. They aren't there to fill trophy cases, but to educate students in real-life settings, often in painful ways.

The official in charge of the play, according to one who spoke with him afterward, is inconsolable. Many people hurting today over a football game.

It’s not what happens to you, the old cliché goes, but how you handle it. That defines character.

That’s all that Peach County will walk away with. That might be a victory in itself.

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