SOUTHBRIDGE — An official with the local Pop Warner football program defended Wednesday the Southbridge team’s conduct during a Sept. 15 game in which five rival players between the ages of 10 and 12 suffered concussions and instead put the blame on the other team’s coach.
Reading from a prepared statement, Rob Philion, vice president of Southbridge Pop Warner Youth Football and Cheer, said the rival Tantasqua coaches bore the responsibility for protecting their players.
“It is not the duty nor the responsibility of the Southbridge coaching staff to monitor the ways in which their opponents manage their teams,” Philion said during a news conference at Harry J. McMahon Memorial Field.
He criticized Tantasqua’s head coach, Erik Iller, and the program’s president, his wife Jen Iller, for allowing the game to continue after four of their players were seriously hurt after the sixth play, bringing the number of available players on their side below the minimum allowable total of 16.
“The unfortunate decision that was made that day, by Mr. and Mrs. Iller, was to continue the game with the remaining players, despite the fact that after only six plays, they were down to 13 players fulfilling 22 positions on the field,” Philion said.
He said the Southbridge team was not informed during the game that the Tantasqua squad was playing with 13 and later just 11 available players.
All the Tantasqua players who suffered concussions missed time from school. Four of the five have since been medically cleared to return to the field. Philion expressed “heartfelt concern” for the injured Tantasqua players, while also defending the Southbridge youths.
“As we mentioned at the hearing, if you just took the time to sit down and talk to these 10-, 11-, and 12-year-old little boys, you’d see what we see,” he said. “Good kids with good hearts who need Pop Warner in their lives for many reasons. We’re proud of our boys, and we stand behind them.”
The Illers’ home phone number was not accepting voice mail messages on Wednesday night, and an e-mail to the Tantasqua Pop Warner president’s account was not immediately returned.
The Tantasqua Pop Warner board had issued a statement Monday criticizing Southbridge for refusing to accept any responsibility for what occurred.
“It is our position that the ad hominem attacks and disparaging remarks made by members of the Southbridge organization are both unwarranted and completely without merit,” the statement said. “They show a clear failure to grasp the real issues at hand [the harming of 10-to-12-year-old- children].
“More importantly, their unwillingness to entertain any responsibility does a great disservice to their players, families, and the Southbridge community at large.”
After a hearing last week, league officials suspended Erik Iller and Southbridge head coach Scott Lazo for the rest of the season and placed them on probation through the 2013 season. Jennifer Iller and Doug Lazo, the Southbridge Pop Warner president, were also placed on probation through the 2013 season. The three game officials were permanently banned.
The Tantasqua program had also said in its statement that Southbridge violated the so-called “lopsided rule,” which took effect when Southbridge jumped out to a 28-0 lead.
Philion disputed that allegation on Wednesday, stating that Southbridge followed the rule and altered their style of play.
Among the necessary measures taken, he said, were pulling team starters from the game, running only between the tackles, making frequent substitutions, and refraining from passing plays. He said the team also went beyond those measures by punting on first down, running out of bounds instead of downfield, and instructing officials to throw penalty flags if a Southbridge player appeared to have a chance to advance the football or score.
Patrick W. Inderwish, president of Central Massachusetts Pop Warner, wrote in a letter Saturday to Doug Lazo, the Southbridge president, that a hearing committee had found the Southbridge team committed “a violation of the lopsided rule.”
While Tantasqua said in its statement that the final score of the game was 52-0, Philion said Wednesday that final tally was 34-0, citing the Central Mass. Pop Warner website.