It was the play that changed Indianola Academy’s season.
The game-winning overtime touchdown pass lobbed into the end zone on second down by Starkville Academy running back Taylor Arnold sent the otherwise undefeated Colonels home from Jackson Academy with their only loss of the season on Nov. 18.
Arguably, the two best teams in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools’ AAA classification were on the field that night, and there is no contesting Starkville Academy is the 2017 state champion.
Had the game officials been able to use a replay system to review that play and perhaps others in the game, however, the Volunteers may have been forced to find the end zone another way and on another down.
Currently, the National Federation of High Schools does not allow for the type of replay system that is routinely used in multiple sports at the college and professional ranks.
According to MAIS Assistant Director of Activities/Technology David Drake, the MAIS is fully equipped and willing to institute such a system if it is ever authorized.
If replay had been utilized in the game, Drake indicated that Starkville likely would have had to make something happen on third or fourth down, and it is possible IA might have gotten the ball still knotted at 14 apiece.
“Someone asked about these plays the night of the game and I was able to watch video replays in our broadcast trailer,” Drake said of the touchdown pass and IA’s final play on the half yard line where the ball came loose on a fumbled snap but was called dead as running back Sebastian Harris picked it up and ran it into the end zone. “I would say that the consensus in the trailer was that the ball came in contact with the turf before the receiver was able to secure possession of it. Unfortunately, the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) does not allow video replay at this time."
In a recent interview with the Commercial Dispatch in Columbus, Arnold seemed to have his own doubts about the result of the play.
"I didn't make a very good throw, but he just made a heck of a play on it," Arnold told the paper. "I didn't think he caught it, but they said he did, so I was OK with it. Whatever works."
It did not take long in the age of social media for some of the game film from that night to circulate on Facebook and other websites, particularly the ones that show Starkville’s final touchdown and the Volunteers’ goal line stand in overtime.
Drake said that game film is routinely reviewed by MAIS officials, especially when there is controversy surrounding a play or multiple plays in a game.
“Not only is championship game footage reviewed, but any game plays where there is some type of controversy are reviewed,” Drake said. “As a usual thing, both the Director of Activities and the local assigning secretary examine any plays in question.”
This review process cannot currently change the outcome of a play, but it can give MAIS officials more insight and help with better preparation for future games.
Replay likely would not have helped the Colonels on that fateful final play, Drake said. None of the camera angles are definitive, and it is possible that the ball was possessed by a player on the ground prior to Harris picking it up. That’s not saying that it was, but it would likely have not met the standard of definitive evidence held by most replay systems.
“On the last play, there was no angle that showed the ball continuously,” Drake said. “After talking with the side judge, we learned that he blew the play dead because one of the players that was on the ground gained possession of the ball before No. 10 took it away from him. At that point the play was blown dead. Again, even if there had been a camera angle showing that no other player had possession of the ball, video review would have been prohibited.”
For now, no play can be reviewed by officials, but that is something Drake and other associations across the country would like to change.
“Assuming our athletic commission approves, we intend to join New Jersey and possibly a couple of other states in petitioning the NFHS for permission to use it for the upcoming championship games in some form,” Drake said. “That will obviously not help in past situations where a correctable error might have occurred, but we think it would be most helpful going forward. I think everyone would agree, getting every call right is the goal. As we see in the NFL and college ranks, even with video replay, this is not always possible, but it certainly gets us closer to that goal. Our office and our officials are certainly on board with this. Hopefully, the NFHS will give us the freedom to try this next year.”
Drake said that there are voices opposed to replay in high school because they fear it might slow the pace of the game down too much.
“I personally believe that there is a balance that can be found that will be right for us,” Drake said. “Our athletic commission will talk through this at the upcoming January AAC meeting.”
Drake, who once lived just a few miles from Indianola Academy, but now resides in the central part of the state, said he still has deep ties to IA and has had many cordial conversations with administrators and fans about the championship game calls.
“We agreed that both teams played a hard-fought game,” Drake said. “We also agreed that it is regrettable that the NFHS has not allowed video replay before now, because our broadcast crew is tremendous and has all of the capabilities that we need to put it in place. Hopefully, with the help of some of the other states that are wanting to do the same, we will be able to get permission to do this going forward.”
Currently, NFHS and MAIS do not allow any protest of any athletic contest, Drake said, but MAIS is willing to have an honest conversation about these and other calls made by officials within the association.
“Our office has been very transparent about the situation,” Drake said. “The video shows what it shows, and I haven’t come across anyone that has tried to skirt the issue. It is what it is. Hopefully, we will be able to get everyone on board to take steps to prevent at least some of this from happening in the future.”