Walkersville football Coach Joe Polce had just gotten home from his team’s 7-3 loss at No. 3 Damascus on Friday when his son Josh had bad news.
Josh, who plays for Walkersville, had seen a video online of Damascus’ fourth-quarter touchdown — running back Gage Dickens ran for 14 yards on 3rd and goal for the deciding points in the 2A West region final — and the Hornets had 12 players on the field.
Polce pulled up game film and confirmed it. Two referees had thrown flags on the play, but called off the fouls. Damascus’ score stood.
After the final 10 minutes and 47 seconds ticked off the game clock, the Hornets (12-0), winners of two straight 3A state titles, advanced to the state semifinals, while Walkersville (11-1) ended its season two rounds short of what the team hoped would be a repeat 2A state championship.
“I was pretty shocked,” Polce said. “We’re not trying to take anything away from Damascus. They’re the best team we’ve played in the last three years, for sure. . . . Whether they would’ve won or not, I don’t know, but I would’ve liked to have seen how it would’ve played out fairly.”
Polce said the referees “did not give a great explanation” after the touchdown. One flag, he was told, was inadvertent. Another was for illegal formation.
Al Ferraro, commissioner of the Washington District Football Officials Association, which provided referees for the game, said the head umpire decided to waive off the second flag after some of his crew said they counted 11 players and the line judge couldn’t definitively determine whether he saw five players in the backfield.
“We missed a play, and we’re very sorry that we missed a play,” Ferraro said. “It’s not like these people have committed a crime and should never work a game again. . . . There was [a lot of] plays in that game, and they got one wrong.”
Damascus Coach Eric Wallich didn’t respond to a request for comment on Monday, but in a statement to Maryland Sports Access this weekend, he acknowledged having 12 players on the field for the play, explaining it as unintentional. Wallich said the Hornets had confusion among their backup running backs in a package usually meant for running back Ben Lokos, who suffered an injury earlier in the game. So, an extra player was in the backfield for the unbalanced line formation.
“It was a big play and that can’t be disputed,” Wallich said in the statement. “However, we don’t feel one play is the reason we won … To reduce it down to a five-second play and a missed call is an injustice to the way our kids played all night.”
Had the officials thrown a flag for illegal substitution — having 12 players lined up before the play started — Damascus would’ve endured a five-yard penalty and faced 3rd and goal from the 19-yard line. If referees flagged illegal participation during the play, the Hornets would’ve moved back to the 29-yard line after a 15-yard penalty.
“In either case, I like our chances of stopping them,” Polce said. “Or at least forcing a field goal that would have tied it instead of putting them ahead.”
Damascus, looking for a 41st straight win on Friday against Glenelg (8-3), moved to the 2A classification before this season. By joining the West division with Walkersville, which had a 25-game win streak, the two met in the region final.
After the officiating mistake marred what Polce called the “championship-caliber” matchup on Friday, he called for the MPSSAA to end its four-division playoff structure and move to a 16-team format, which would’ve had the Hornets and Lions — the state’s top two 2A teams in its point rankings — potentially meeting in the state championship instead.
“They’ve played their toughest game by far,” Polce said. “We would have, too, if we would’ve been fortunate enough to win.”