One of the strangest high school football games in Central Section history became stranger a few hours after its completion this weekend.
Central High School’s 21-20 upset of then-unbeaten and top-ranked Clovis at Lamonica Stadium – a game scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Thursday, delayed 1 hour and 15 minutes because of lighting, suspended at nearly 11 that night because of more lightning, and resumed at 10:30 a.m. Saturday – was struck by the most improbable bolt of all in film review.
A potential winning drive by Clovis in the final minutes after the game resumed – a six-play, 44-yard march that resulted in a 34-yard field goal miss wide right by a foot – was executed against 13 Grizzlies defenders on the first five plays and 12 on the sixth.
The overload was detected by no one – not coaches from either team, not the five-man officiating crew.
“It’s odd,” says Central Section commissioner Jim Crichlow, “that with all those coaches and officials, somebody can’t count to 11.”
Central coach Mark Hetherington says the illegal alignment was not intentional: “It’s a sinking feeling. Our staff allowed two different personnel groupings to mix. We wouldn’t want a penalty in that situation; we wouldn’t want to stop the clock and give them yardage.
“It’s very unfortunate. It’s too bad that this will take away from how fun and how satisfying it was for our kids. I’d like to move on as soon as possible, but it’s not easy when I realize Clovis, a class program, has experienced the wrong side of injustice. It’s on us as a staff, on me as the head coach, that this wasn’t done the right way. It’s terrible, and it doesn’t feel good.”
Chris Cota, a 29-year official, was the game’s crew chief of a largely veteran, five-man California Sports Officiating Association team that has worked together for years.
“We missed it,” he says, “and we’re devastated.”
It’s human error and nothing can be remedied in the form of a protest, Crichlow says. “It’s like watching the NCAA or the NFL when a ref makes a mistake – ‘Well, gosh, we goofed’ – and that’s all there is.”
Except, while plays in question on those levels are often reviewed immediately, film review in this case didn’t occur until a few hours following the game.
Clovis, which entered the Tri-River Athletic Conference game 6-0 against 1-5 Central, had trailed 21-12 and faced first-and-goal on the Grizzlies’ 1-yard line when the game resumed Saturday.
The Cougars – their cheerleaders back and about 1,000 fans present sans admission charge – scored on their first play on a one-yard plunge by quarterback Sean Kuenzinger. Further, they scored on a conversion pass from Kuenzinger to Christian Copeland, who made a one-handed reception and raced into the end zone to cut the gap to 21-20 with 5:55 remaining.
Central then punted after three plays, setting a bizarre stage that coaches, officials and administrators say is unprecedented locally, if not afar.
Clovis began possession on its 39-yard line with 4 minutes, 14 seconds remaining. And it was then that the most basic of officiating mechanics broke down, not to recover.
The first responsibility of each official on each play, Cota says, is to count players and then check off with each other, using hand signals.
“Offense is counted by the umpire and referee; defense is counted by both flanks on the sideline and the back judge,” says Cota, the referee or, in football parlance the white hat, for this game.
“I’ve lived and relived it,” Cota says. “I saw film; I saw still shots. How they (sideline judges and back judge) didn’t coordinate, I have no explanation. They missed it – period – and they’re mortified. And I shouldn’t say ‘they,’ because I’m the crew chief. We missed it.”
Cota, co-supervisor with Joe Kitchen of the CSOA, says there won’t be in-house ramifications. But he did pull his crew off a scheduled assignment for the Clovis West-Clovis game at Lamonica Stadium on Nov. 6.
“Something had to be done because this was a big mistake, a big one,” he says. “And that was my first step.”
Remarkably, the outmanned Cougars, after taking over on their 39, still managed to march to the Grizzlies’ 17-yard line.
The drive began with Kuenzinger’s 23-yard completion to wide receiver Coltin Velasquez.
But then the quarterback was sacked for a seven-yard loss by Samuel Satele. Clovis coach Rich Hammond, suspecting something was amiss, then called a timeout.
“I talked with my coaches and we disagreed on their front and coverage,” Hammond says. “I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t pick up their pressure. I knew something was different, but I didn’t put two and two together at the time.”
Yet the Cougars continued onward.
Kuenzinger – who would finish with 392 passing yards on 29 of 40 completions – connected with J.J. Wills for 22 yards. Kuenzinger then threw two incomplete passes before completing one to Tyson Fraser for six yards to the Central 17 with 2:30 remaining.
Hammond called another timeout and decided to go for the field goal on fourth-and-4, and junior Jacob Hinrichs’ attempt sailed just outside the right upright.
A three-yard run by Grizzlies quarterback Nick Szpor three plays later on third-and-2 sealed it as his teammates erupted on Lamonica’s south sideline.
No wonder the emotion for Central, a team that lost to Bullard 21-17 in a game the Grizzlies were stopped inches from the goal line on a fourth-down run with a little more than a minute left, and also 17-13 to Buchanan. The Knights and Bears are now Nos. 1 and 6 in The Bee’s latest rankings.
“This doesn’t take away what our kids had accomplished to that point (of Clovis’ final drive),” Hetherington says. “But it does leave us with a sour ending. Coach Hammond’s kids play with a great deal of class.”
Hetherington called Hammond to apologize Sunday night.
“And his reputation as a class individual was upheld in that conversation,” says Hetherington, the quarterback for a Buchanan section-winning team in 2000.
Hammond, meanwhile, will attempt to rally his now fourth-ranked charges for a TRAC showdown at home Friday night against Buchanan.
“It is what it is, and it’s disappointing,” he says. “But most important for me at this point is to get ready for Buchanan in a game that’s paramount we win; it could be for the TRAC title.”
But back to Central: “Well,” he says, actually laughing, “the strangest game of all time found a way to get stranger.”
Week 8 Central Section football rankings
- 1. Bullard (6-1)
- 2. Liberty-Bakersfield (3-3)
- 3. Ridgeview (7-0)
- 4. Clovis (6-1)
- 5. Clovis North (4-2)
- 6. Buchanan (5-2)
- 7. Clovis West (3-3)
- 8. Centennial (5-2)
- 9. Lemoore (6-2)
- 10. Sanger (6-1)
- 11. Hanford (8-0)
- 12. Tulare (7-0)
- 13. Bakersfield (4-3)
- 14. Frontier (4-3)
- 15. Central (2-5)
- 16. Edison (2-5)
- 17. Memorial (6-1)
- 18. Madera South (4-3)
- 19. Fresno (6-1)
- 20. Sunnyside (4-3)
- D-I: 1. Bullard, 2. Liberty-Bakersfield, 3. Clovis
- D-II: 1. Ridgeview, 2. Lemoore, 3. Sanger
- D-III: 1. Hanford, 2. Memorial, 3. Madera (4-2)
- D-IV: 1. Chavez (6-1), 2. Washington (4-3), 3. Chowchilla (5-2)
- D-V: 1. Immanuel (6-1), 2. Fowler (4-2), 3. Dos Palos (3-4)
- D-VI: 1. Kennedy (7-1), 2. Avenal (5-2), 3. Sierra Pacific (5-2)