What a conundrum.
As I find myself three months into my eighth year and approach my 400th RTD blog, I find myself tempted to cross the line into territory that has been heretofore taboo. Partly due to running short on new material, and partly because it just needs to be said, come along with me while I dip my toes into uncharted waters…
I’ve already written more about my own personal family than I should. I’ve described my house, my basement, my yard, and my sons. So much for privacy.
My athletic director/employer has hinted rather strongly that I probably shouldn’t be writing about the varsity lacrosse team I coach. She said that some parents have complained, so I try to steer clear of any details or specifics.
As a third-year member of the Central New York Lacrosse Officials Association (CNYLOA), I’ve thought about telling some referee stories, but I was deterred by their social media policy, which also strongly suggests that we avoid sharing any deep dark secrets or behind-the-scenes insights. Since I already consider myself a bit of an outsider (as a former college coach and a current high school coach), I’ve allowed discretion to be the better part of valor…
I’m going to stick my neck out and say a few things about coaching high school athletes these days, and then I’ll tell you what it’s like to wear a striped shirt and blow a whistle while I watch a lacrosse game.
First, the coaching…
For over 37 years, I’ve coached soccer, ice hockey, and a lot of lacrosse. I’ve coached boys and girls, JV, varsity, and college. I think the running tally is something like 60 seasons – and we’re still counting.
In addition to that, I’ve also “coached” winter and summer league teams, and worked as a lacrosse camp clinician for more than 20 years on college campuses in New York and Maryland. I even started my own camp and ran that for eight years.
When I wasn’t coaching, I was teaching – 33 years at Hannibal High School, grades 7, 9-12, AP English, College English, Children’s Lit, and AIS. I say all that to establish my “professional experience.” I’ve written before about the fine line between coaching and teaching, and that, to me, they’re pretty much one and the same. I coached my students through the ELA Regents exam, and I taught skills like the split dodge, one-on-one defense, and how to play zone offense.
This has been my fourth year of retirement, and my first year coaching only boys’ lacrosse (last year it was girls’ ice hockey and boys’ lacrosse; before that it was girls’ soccer, girls’ ice hockey, and boys’ lacrosse). I enjoyed putting all my eggs into one basket this year, so to speak, but with 12 months to concentrate on one group of kids, I occasionally found myself frustrated that I couldn’t meet with everyone anytime I wanted. Some kids played soccer, some ran cross country, some played volleyball, and others played football, and in the winter, they played ice hockey and basketball! Seems like no one really wanted to talk about lacrosse until March.
And then the season begins, we’re indoors for two weeks or so, and then it’s time to get in a scrimmage or two. Once we start playing actual games, it’s three games a week until… it’s suddenly Senior Night, and there’s the Sectional meeting, and we’re playing in the Section 3 Class B semifinals.
Now the season’s over and we’re trying to corral the players and make summer plans and, of course, their fall and winter coaches are doing the same thing. I’ve talked about this crazy Catch-22 before – all coaches say they want their kids to play multiple sports, but we also want them to play our sport in the off-season and summer, too. I mean – something’s got to give, right?
We’ve only got eight or nine returning varsity players, but the JV team won a lot of games and played hard this past spring, so the planning for next year has already begun. Our end-of-the-year picnic is this week, and I’ll present my (nearly) annual paper plate awards, we’ll recognize and thank our seniors, announce post-season awards, and try to get summer commitments from our freshmen, sophomores, and juniors – and, oh yeah – did I mention that I decided I would coach Oswego’s ULA 7/8 boys’ team this summer, too?
Ever the optimist, I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to have a productive summer (and, dare I say, fall and winter?)… and that’s all I’m gonna say about coaching – for now.
As for the officiating, let me begin by saying that, in three years, I’ve done all of one varsity game, four or five JV games, and about a dozen modified games. In two summers, I’ve refereed a few ULA games, the Pepper Tournament (once), and the Lake Placid Youth Summit (once), and one fall I worked at an October tournament in Rochester.
I have no ambition of working my way up to varsity games or even college games; coaching is still my first love. I just figured I’d help address the need for more referees, and diversify my portfolio.
So far this spring, I’ve done two JV games, four modified games, and one 8/9 game. I didn’t know there was an 8/9 level, but, sure enough, there it is, listed on the payscale sheet. We have separate rules for modified, but none for 8/9…
My officiating partner and I talked about modified rules, then we met with the coaches, and then we called out the captains. As soon as the game started, I noticed a definite uptick in speed, size, and skill, but we were on top of it – or so I thought.
Minutes into the game, the score was 1-1, and I was on the bench side when I heard one of the coaches yelling at me, “You’ve got to call it both ways, ref!” My back was to him and I decided to keep it that way. Moments later, I heard the same coach yell, “This isn’t modified, y’know!” Again, I decided to ignore him, but I thought to myself, No, but it’s about as close as you can get. I mean, it wasn’t JV, either…
You never know what you’re getting into when you referee. At the two-minute mark of a 10-6 JV game, I gave the “Keep it in!” call to the team that was ahead, only to have the coach of the team with the lead explode and yell, “No! We don’t have to keep it in – we’re up by four goals!” Deferring to this grizzled, veteran coach, and my partner who took his side of the debate, and now filled with doubt, I backed off, and the team ran out the final two minutes in and out of the offensive box. After the game, I said to my partner that I could have sworn the leading team had to keep it in the box if the score margin was four or fewer goals, but he told me that the coach was right. I felt stupid all the way home… until I saw the rulebook on my kitchen counter as I walked in the door. I found the right page and was shocked – but pleased – to find that I had been right all along!
Other interesting experiences:
They say you’re never going to get a ref to change his call, but I actually called back a goal I had whistled. I anticipated the shot going in, so when the shot was released, I jumped the gun and signaled goal. The modified goalie protested (earnestly!) that the ball hadn’t gone in, and a parent on the sideline said the same thing. Then I saw the ball sitting in front of his foot, still stuck in the muddy crease. I waved off the goal, awarded possession to the goalie, and a minute or so later when I had the chance to run by his bench, said to the coach of the team that had the goal taken away, “Sorry, but I messed up that call; I don’t think that ball ever went in the net.” He accepted my explanation and, fortunately for everyone, his team went on to win easily.
In that “small world” category, I have reffed with some of my former players at Oswego State and with refs who used to work our games at Oswego State. I have also officiated with the father of a player I profiled for 3dLacrosse back between 2012-2014. I have been partnered with refs that I have yelled at high school games… all the more reason to always watch what one says – at all times!
We had a player at Oswego HS who started to bark at opponents; I don’t know why, but I guess he thought it was funny. We thought it was stupid and unsportsmanlike, but he wouldn’t listen to his coaches. Then he did it in a game near the end of the season, and the ref yelled out, “Stop barking! Last warning!” I could have hugged him! One of the best calls I heard all spring!
Thus inspired, I flagged a player a week or two later for… what, roaring? … at an opponent. He broke down in a defensive stance, “roared” at the smaller player with the ball, then slashed him in the helmet, and then roared yet again! I threw two flags – one for the slash, and the second for the unsportsmanlike “taunting.” If I was really paying attention, I would have called both roars, and thrown my hat for the third foul, but I think the message got through. The game settled down after that, but I was surprised when the parents along the sideline started to cheer my calls!
Then there was the game when, as the third quarter ended and I started trotting over to the middle of the field to meet up with my partner, I heard spectators call out, “Ref! Ref!”
I thought to myself, Now what? (the teams were over at their respective benches; what needed my attention now?). I turned and asked, “What’s up?”
“There’s a fight between parents!”
I might have been thinking of another response, but I said, “Really?” I looked down the sideline and, sure enough, I saw two groups heading in opposite directions; the fire had apparently been put out. So all I said then was, “It’s a game, folks.” (my students used to tease me for using that word, but I guess I used “folks” all the time). I asked the score table volunteers if there was any game management staff available, but there wasn’t. Fortunately, the rest of the game went on without incident (as far as I know).
I guess refereeing is, like Forrest Gump says, like a box of chocolates… you never know what you’re gonna get.
This is just the second Memorial Day in the past 37 years that I am not at the national championship. Besides the memories of great games and great times with friends and family, one of the highlights I miss are the various military fly-overs, the drill teams, and the many salutes to those who have given their lives protecting our many freedoms. Many, many thanks to them and their families.
Drive carefully, America!
- Dan Witmer
Dan Witmer is the author of two books. The Best of Road Trip Dad – the Laker Lacrosse Collection is an accumulation of 45 articles written for JustLacrosseUpstate between the years 2012 and 2018, about the history and traditions, the people, and the stories of the Oswego State men’s lacrosse program. The book is available on Amazon.com, and at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, the SUNY Oswego College Store in the Marano Campus Center, The Sports Outfit on West Genesee Street in Fairmount, and Geared 2 Sports in Cortland. ...and piles to go before I sleep - The Book of Wit is his memoir describing his 33 year career teaching HS English and coaching at Hannibal Central School. It is available on Amazon.com and at the river's end bookstore.