While controversy is not uncommon on the local high school football scene, it is a rarity that the equipment being used is the hot-button topic.
The Rawlings Pro 5-PIAA football was officially adopted by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) on July 1, replacing the Wilson GST 1003 model, and the new pigskin itself has become a source of debate.
There are few area coaches that are thrilled about the introduction of the new footballs for the 2014 playoff season.
The PIAA, which selected the Rawlings ball over eight other potential candidates, has said that qualifying schools are required to compete with the new pigskin when participating in PIAA district and all-interdistrict championships from the first round through the finals.
But member schools may elect to participate with any NFHS-approved ball of their choice throughout the regular season.
“The balls were chosen according to a competitive request for proposal procedure,” said Dr. Robert Lombardi, the PIAA’s executive director. “As with anything that’s new, schools may have some concerns. You know how it is with change. We’ll see how it is two years from now.”
District 6 football Chairman Ralph Cecere, the Portage high school principal, said that a number of coaches have expressed concern over the new footballs.
“They seem to have a wider girth and are a bit difficult to hold onto, particularly when they get wet,” Cecere said.
Mustangs coach Gary Gouse was a bit more blunt.
“It is not a good ball in my opinion,” Gouse said. “I don’t like them. It’s rounder, and you have to have really big hands. Thank goodness our quarterback, Michael Bryja, does. It’s really tough for the other kids.”
Berlin Brothersvalley coach Doug Paul left no doubt about his opinion on the Rawlings Pro 5-PIAA.
“We hate the new balls,” the Mountaineers coach said. “Our quarterback, Brentson Harding, has said that he doesn’t mind it, and he’s the one that has to play with it, but as coaches, we don’t like it. It’s rounder and blockier. I think it’s a harder ball, too – something that’s like a finger breaker. It’s terrible.”
Harding, a junior, said it took him a while to get used to the new ball.
“At first, I didn’t really like them,” Harding said. “But after we practiced with it for our 7-on-7 (drills), I got more used to it. They shouldn’t be that bad. The leather is a different material, and is a little slippier than the other ones.”
North Star senior quarterback Steve Mort had experience last season, completing 27 of 73 passes for 379 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions.
“I’ve thrown a lot of different footballs before, so it really doesn’t affect me that much,” said Mort, who has large hands. “I haven’t really noticed anything.”
Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said he has heard other coaches sentiments regarding the Rawlings ball.
“The complaint about the ball that I’ve heard from some people is that the ball is thicker, it’s more impregnated in the middle, so kids that have smaller hands are having a difficult time throwing it,” Beitel said. “However, our quarterback (Collin Smith) has big hands, and he feels that the ball is lighter and he actually throws the ball with a lot more velocity and distance than he does the GST.”
Shade coach Don Fyfe, a former standout quarterback for Chestnut Ridge, sees a difference in the football’s shape.
“It’s definitely more round,” said Fyfe. “It’s awkward to throw. It didn’t break in the way they thought it would, and it didn’t get smaller. Our one quarterback, Chase Kiser, is only 5-(foot)-5 and has small hands. Our receivers haven’t had any problems with them.”
Penn Cambria coach Jason Grassi is another of the coaches who is less than impressed with the Rawlings ball.
“I gave it to (senior quarterback) Mark (Mardula) to practice with,” Grassi said. “They seem bigger and bulkier.”
One of the other complaints about the Rawlings balls is that in rainy weather, the dye comes off on players’ hands.
“After the 7-on-7 drills, someone said to me that my hands were pure red,” Gouse said. “We’ve used them all summer, but anytime it’s wet, you have to use a glove because it’s really hard to grip. If it’s raining, Michael is going to wear a glove.”
Paul has said the balls they have received are falling apart.
“We used the one ball for maybe 10 days and, where the air valve stem is, it’s already ripped there,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s not the quality that the Wilson GTS was.”
Beitel said a new ball looked like it was three weeks old after three days of practice, and Gouse predicts the balls won’t last a week.
“They might last for a game, but if it’s a bad-weather game, you’re going to need a new ball,” he said.
Because teams don’t have to use them until the fall, some coaches are phasing them in throughout the season.
“To be honest with you, we haven’t used the new ball a whole lot. We are going to make due with what we have,” Grassi said. “We are still going to use the balls that we did last year through the season and work the new ball in here and there. We are kind of rolling the dice there and hopefully, if playoff time comes around and we are there, we can adjust.”
A phone call to Rawlings representative Greg Bialis was not returned.
The PIAA football contract with Rawlings will run through 2018.
Known primarily for its baseballs, Rawlings recently entered the inflatable ball market and was seeking a major player to help boost its product line.
Rawlings will also supply the official balls for baseball, boys and girls basketball, soccer, softball and volleyball.
The PIAA’s four-year contract with Rawlings is reportedly worth $2.7 million.
“As a coach, I’m thinking, ‘we complicated this,’ ” Paul said. “We took something that wasn’t broke and made it worse. But I guess I shouldn’t say we, because I don’t have a vote at the PIAA level.”
Added Gouse: “We had a good ball. It’s funny; we use the footballs, but they make the decisions. It sounds like government to me.”