Natick (Mass.) High will be competing in the Eastern Massachusetts Division 2A final, but the team's berth in that game has stirred up a maelstrom of controversy after it was discovered that Natick had been using an illegal game ball during the victory.
The bizarre controversy was sparked by a third quarter discovery by referees in Natick's 38-33 victory against Plymouth (Mass.) South High on Tuesday night. Rather than the official Spaulding J5V football approved for varsity competition by Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association officials, Natick was competing in the game with a Wilson GP series ball.
The distinction between the two balls may seem minor -- they're both virtually the same size and both made of the same composite material -- but Plymoth South's coach insisted in interviews with ESPN Boston and the Boston Herald that the Wilson ball gave Natick a significant advantage.
"We have pictures of them using the ball throughout the entire game," Plymouth South football coach Scott Fry told the Herald. "I was livid when they told me all they could do was penalize Natick from the point that they were made aware of it.
"I feel bad because it sounds like sour grapes on our end and both teams played a great game. For us, the ball really doesn't matter because we run. But for a team that likes to throw the ball, it makes a big difference. The laces on the Wilson ball are made of leather and it is easier to grab."
Fry claims that his running-based offense would not have received as much of a benefit as Natick would from using the ball and has repeatedly come back to the nasty conditions during the semifinal game as a key reason why the Wilson ball would have provided such an advantage.
And while Fry insists that he and his team will not petition to play in the Eastern Massachusetts final -- "I'm not looking to play on Saturday," Fry told ESPN Boston — he does want to know why Natick was allowed to play with the inadmissible football. According to MIAA custom, one game ball for each team is presented to the teams via a meeting with team representatives a day before the game. Yet, as noted by ESPN, those balls aren't necessarily the ones that end up on the field during the game, with teams receiving approval for their footballs on-site during pregame administrators meetings.
That appears to be where Natick ended up with an unexpected football. When the game officials discovered the illegal ball Natick was immediately assessed a 15-yard penalty and the ball was removed from play, but by that time the team had already completed a full half with what Fry insists is a superior bad-weather football, as he reiterated to ESPN Boston.
"One's a lot easier to handle in the rain," Fry said of the Wilson ball. "It's much easier to handle and that's why many teams use it. If it didn't matter, it wouldn't be mandatory.
He continued, "It was an unfair advantage. Everybody should be playing by the same rules and that's the part that's going to hang over our heads. But I take nothing away from the Natick kids, they've played phenomenal and they deserve it."