Orchard Park-Newburgh: two days later, still two bad calls

I very rarely make a big deal out of officiating. They rarely make mistakes and almost never have a say in deciding the outcome. When they do make mistakes, I almost always chalk them up to human error, not gross negligence, not favoritism. Officials make mistakes, just like players and coaches and sportswriters make mistakes. I think I’m the last person on Earth who still doesn’t want instant replay because I think human error is part of the game.

All that said, I would have been negligent in my duties if I had avoided the overriding question facing Newburgh Free Academy after its 21-13 loss to Buffalo-area Orchard Park in the Class AA state title game on Sunday at the Carrier Dome. That question will haunt many Newburgh players, coaches and fans for a long time: What would have happened if Orchard Park didn’t get the benefit of two wrong calls, both directly resulting in the first two touchdowns of a very closely fought game.

For those who haven’t heard, Orchard Park scored its first touchdown on a fourth-and-12 play in which the receiver had the ball leaning against the ground as he caught it in the end zone. I know this because a Buffalo News photographer sitting next to me in the press box showed me frame-by-frame photos of the kid bobbling the ball as he was about to hit the ground and having the ball touch the ground as he was trying to corral it. I saw it with my own two eyes. If there were any less evidence, and if that touchdown weren’t followed by a flat-out awful officiating call leading to Orchard Park’s next touchdown, I would have gone in a different direction with the column.

But when the same receiver — by the way, a fabulous player, Ben Johnson — made a remarkable 33-yard catch clearly out of bounds at Newburgh’s 2, and two officials, way out of position, looked at each other and decided to call it a catch, something needed to be said about it. The scoreboard replay above showed the kid’s feet out of bounds — only one foot is needed to be inbounds in high school ball — by about a yard each. Orchard Park scored on the next play to take a 13-0 lead (the extra point was blocked), and suddenly a tight game in which every point was huge became a two-touchdown game.

Again, I know officials have a tough job. I know they don’t have the benefit of instant replay at the high school level. I’m not calling them incompetent because they missed at least two calls. Nor am I saying that they cost Newburgh the game. (As I wrote in a sidebar, Newburgh self-destructed early on by losing two fumbles and missing a field goal.) Nor am I saying Orchard Park didn’t deserve to win. (Orchard Park might have won anyway. It did a ton of wonderful things on both sides of the ball.)

What I’m saying is that Newburgh must forever live with wondering if the outcome would have been different had the calls been made correctly. If the Orchard Park people read my column off the game as it was written, and not through the eyes of their school colors, they will see that point made loudly and clearly. It wasn’t a knock against Orchard Park. It was pointing out an injustice that victimized Newburgh.




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