The Warner Robins High School Demons stormed back from a 28-point deficit in their state championship game against Bainbridge on Tuesday only to lose the game in triple overtime.
But from the game’s waning moments a dispute has emerged over whether Mike Chastain, head coach of the Demons, was given the correct options by game officials after a penalty was called when his team’s kicker was knocked down on a crucial field goal try.
Chastain contends he was given the wrong information by a sideline official, but the Georgia High School Sports Associations says he was properly informed.
The controversy may remain in dispute forever in the aftermath of a game many have heralded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, high school title game in state history.
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The play in question came during the game’s second overtime period. The Demons had the ball first, drove inside the 5-yard line and lined up for a field goal on fourth down.
The kick by Samariy Howard sailed through the uprights. But there was a penalty on the play because a Bainbridge defender dove into Howard’s leg and knocked him down.
An official on the field announced the infraction as a “personal foul. Roughing the kicker.” What came next, though, surprised many in the stadium and even more watching the broadcast at home.
“That penalty has been declined,” the referee said.
Robin Hines, the executive director of the GHSA has since said the rule for roughing the kicker is a 15-yard penalty or half the distance to the goal. According to the National Federation of High School Association rules, the only defensive penalties that carry an automatic first down are roughing the passer and roughing the kicker or holder.
Coach Chastain elected to decline the penalty after having the conversation with the sideline official.
Chastain says he was presented with two options from the sideline official.
“The first thing he said was, ‘You have some decisions to make,’ ” Chastain told The Telegraph on Thursday. “ ‘You got fourth down and half the distance to the goal or you can keep your points.’ ”
At that point Chastain says he asked for clarification on whether the call should result in a first down.
“I said, ‘So it’s not a first down?’ and (the sideline official) said, ‘Nope, it’s not a first down. You’re going to go half the distance to the goal line, repeat fourth down or take the points off the board.’ I said explain to me why it is not a first down,” Chastain recalled. “As soon as I said, ‘Explain to me why it is not a first down,’ he said, ‘Coach, it is not a first down. It is fourth down and we got to make a decision.’ ”
Chastain says he made his choice, to keep the three points from the successful field goal, based on the options he was presented with from the sideline official. The coach said he did not see the head referee signal the roughing the kicker call at the time because he was in the process of getting everyone ready on the sideline for the next play.
Chastain said that there are two rulings on the field that could have been made in that situation.
One is “running into the kicker,” which results in a 5-yard penalty or half the distance to the goal -- but no first down. The other ruling, which was called on the field, is “roughing the kicker,” which is an automatic first down.
“The way (the sideline official) was explaining it was a ‘running into the kicker’ call,” Chastain said. “It is just a shame that call was miscommunicated to me.”
He said that he would not have declined the option to take the first down if it was presented to him correctly.
“Nobody would decline that. Nobody in their right mind would decline that. Nobody in America would decline that call,” Chastain said.
The coach is familiar with the referee who made the call and said, “I think he is a really good guy,” and believes the referee will corroborate his story he was not offered the option of a first down.
Chastain understands it is a longshot that any ruling will now change the team’s fate.
“Big dreams are, ‘Hey, let’s go replay that overtime,’ but that ain’t going to happen,” he said. “I think somebody ought to come up and say, ‘Look, they miscommunicated that.’ They did not give us the option to do that.”
The coach said the officials should “admit they are wrong, and let’s move on.”
For Hines and the GHSA the “ruling was done on the field,” and based on the investigation they have done it appears the correct protocol was followed.
Hines and his team have spoken with the group of officials who worked the game in order to gather information about what happened on the call.
He also talked with two evaluators, who are not employees of the GHSA, who monitor communication between officials electronically throughout the game. The evaluators provide oversight on rules interpretations. They typically consist of certified officials who have experience at various levels including college. Each provided their version of what happened on the call to Hines during his investigation separately.
“I spoke with each of them independently of each other, and both of them gave me the same story,” Hines said. “The same one that I have communicated to you.”
The referee gave the roughing the kicker call on the field.
“A 15-yard penalty or half the distance to the goal and an automatic first down.” Hines said.
The next step was communicated from the referee to the head linesman. The head linesman was instructed to get the decision from the Warner Robins sideline on if they would accept or decline the penalty, Hines said.
“‘See if the Warner Robins coach wants the points or the first down,’” Hines said he was told. “He went over there and communicated that to (the coach) and the coach took the points.”
After the game, Hines says the question was brought to his attention about whether the wrong information was communicated to the sideline. At this point he instructed his staff to speak with the referee of that crew of officials and with the head linesman who spoke with the Warner Robins sideline.
The head linesman said he told the coach exactly what the referee relayed to him, which was “first down or the points … and the coach took the points,” Hines said.
After the GHSA further explained its version of events, The Telegraph contacted Chastain again to give him a chance to respond.
Chastain said in an email: “I do not believe the head (line) judge that communicated the information to me will say that he gave me the option to take the first down.”