Fist Pump Cost High School a Football Championship

Touchdown celebration by Cathedral High School cost the team its victory.

BOSTON Dec. 6, 2011 -- It's every quarterback's dream. Minutes to go before the end of the game, 18-year-old Cathedral High School senior Matt Owens sprinted across the end zone to score the game winning touchdown in the Division 4A Super Bowl championship game. And it was Owen's birthday.

At least it would have been the winning touchdown had it not been for one small thing.

As Owens raced across the 20-yard line, flush with excitement, the star quarterback raised his left arm. That single gesture cost his team the touchdown and the game. It was the first time Cathedral High School had ever made it to the Superbowl championship.

What most spectators saw as a harmless - and understandable - "We're Number 1" fist pump, the referee saw as a taunting gesture and threw a red flag down on the play. With six minutes to go, the ball went back to the 24 yard line and Cathedral High School never recovered. The Blue Hills Regional Technical School won the championship.

New rules instituted by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association ban any "unsportsmanlike conduct including taunting," according to Paul Wetzel a spokesman for the MIAA.

"The officials, it's up to them and they made the call. That was their interpretation of the gesture and frankly it's up to them to decide that. They decide to call the infraction and assess the penalty. And whether it's the right call or not we don't have any process to sit down around the table and discuss it," said Wetzel.

Triumphant Gesture Costs High School Team Championship

But Jimmy Lynch, the athletic director at Cathedral High School, hopes that's exactly what the MIAA will do.

"We think there was a misinterpretation of the call," said Lynch. "Obviously it was pure excitement. It was a quick fist pump and that's all part of the football game. I don't think the rule was created for what Matt did."

The rule was created to prevent those annoying ball-spiking, bump and grind shows that NFL players regularly engaged in after scoring a touchdown in front of thousands of fans.

But at the college and high school level unsportsmanlike conduct is a judgment call that can leave coaches, athletes, and their parents confused. In a now-infamous 2008 college game, with three seconds to go on the clock Washington's Jake Locker scored a winning touchdown for his team, only to be called for unsportsmanlike conduct after throwing the football in the air. Washington lost the game.

For Lynch and his football team it was a heartbreaking ending to what had been an unblemished season. They were 11- 0 in the regular season and won a playoff game before the state championship game.

"Any state championship game that's lost is tough, but this one was even harder because of this controversial call," Lynch said. He added, "Every single one our players stood on line to shake the opposing team's hand after the game. They said great game. We have shown our sportsmanship all season long."

After every game, referees are supposed to file a report with the MIAA. Officials are still waiting for the report from Sunday's game but it hardly matters. The general rule of sports is that officiating mistakes, if there are any, die with the game. Once the whistle blows that's it.

"There was an umpire in Detroit that cost a guy a perfect game not too long ago. It happens," said Wetzel referring to American League umpire Jim Joyce's blown call that cost Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a spot in the record books.

Cathedral High School Lost Title Over Fist Pump

As for Matt Owens, the student at the heart of this matter, Lynch would only say, "Matt is doing great. He is a great kid. Our team is extremely supportive of him and his coach told him, 'You played your heart out and you did nothing wrong.' Yesterday he showed up at basketball trials."

Even though it sounds like Owens may have moved on, others are having a harder time. Video of the controversial call has been posted on YouTube and talk radio in Boston is heating up with angry calls pouring in demanding to know why a seemingly simple gesture -- a raised arm -- could result in so many dashed hopes. Owen's father, Kenneth Owens, told the Boston Herald that he hand delivered a letter to the MIAA asking for an explanation.

In the end, even though Lynch would like to hear back from the MIAA on what he calls the "misinterpretation" of the unsportsmanlike-conduct rule, he doesn't really expect anything to change.

"I'm not looking to take anything away from Blue Hills. I don't know if they deserved to win, but I do know we didn't deserve to lose."