I sprinted to my left while looking to my right on the grass lacrosse field next to Conestoga Valley’s Fritz Elementary School. A Conestoga Valley midfielder made his way up the sidelines on a play in transition.
“He stepped on the line,” the opposing coach yelled.
The CV midfielder probably did step on the out-of-bounds chalk, and it might have been the first call missed in my debut as a boys lacrosse referee on that Tuesday evening in April.
Jim Fiora, a veteran referee showing me the ropes as my partner on the two-man officiating crew that night, had an odd request during a stoppage in play a moment later.
“Blow into your whistle,” Fiora said.
Apparently, I had been timid sounding my whistle to that point.
“Good,” Fiora said after I blew into the whistle at full lung capacity. “Now blow it like that from now on.”
Thus was the beginning of my experience as a rookie referee this spring, bringing to fruition an idea planted in my head 12 months before.
Need for referees
Around this time a year ago, I wrote an article for LNP about the lack of local boys and girls lacrosse referees. About how the number of lacrosse officials has dropped over the years, leaving barely enough to cover the high school varsity and junior varsity games, in addition to the many youth games.
It was then Terry Farrell, a veteran official and the assigner of boys lacrosse games in the Lancaster-Lebanon and Berks Leagues, suggested I give officiating a try the following spring.
While I’ve been covering L-L boys and girls lacrosse for LNP since the start of the 2015 season, I figured telling the story of how to become a lacrosse referee from a first-person perspective would be interesting.
Little did I know about the many hours spent studying the rule book, the jubilation after passing an exam, the pit-of-your-stomach nervousness in my first night as a referee, and the surprising satisfaction from properly officiating a game.
Doing the work
You probably want to know about the good stuff from my time on the field, so instead of boring you with the minutiae from the months of training, let’s just say a half-dozen nights from early December through the end of January were spent in once-a-week classes inside a room at Lancaster Country Day School, where Fiora went over the 105-page 2018 boys lacrosse rulebook with myself and a handful of other newbies, preparing us for the 100-question, open-book, 90-minute online test.
Seventy-five of those 100 questions need to be answered correctly to pass the test. I scored an 88.
And, just to be further prepared, I’ll admit there was also the creation and study of flash cards of the 50 or so gestures a lacrosse referee can use when making calls on the field.
Still, like any other career or profession, you can only learn so much from a book.
It was time for the real thing.
I whistled a player for a loose-ball push and waived off a goal due to a crease violation that first night while officiating with Fiora in early April.
There were still many areas for improvement, like throwing a flag for the first time, identifying faceoff violations and remembering to consistently conduct counting — to four seconds for the goalie to get the ball out of the crease after a change in possession, 20 seconds for that team to get the ball past midfield and 10 seconds to get it “in the box” — the 30-by-20-yard box on the offensive half of the field.
And I wasn’t the only rookie referee experiencing these growing pains this spring. Rich Coroon, a 64-year-old businessman who works in downtown Lancaster, decided to give officiating a try on a friend’s suggestion, despite the fact he hadn’t played the sport since his college days back in the 1970s.
“I struggle with the slashes and cross-checks. The big penalties,” Coroon said. “The ones where a guy smashes another player is easy (to call). But the gray area, where I don’t see it as a real bad slash, that’s a challenge for me right now.”
My first flag came in a youth contest two weeks after my debut, whistling a defender for a push as an attacker put a shot on goal. The attacker scored, so the flag was waved off. But the referee still has to report the penalty to the scorers’ table. The only problem was that I had forgotten the jersey number of the defensive player who committed the penalty.
My partner that night, 10-year veteran referee Benjamin Zoll, shared a good piece of advice later on.
“Instead of trying to do everything right,” Zoll said. “Just try to pick out one thing to improve on from game to game.”
Aside from a couple parents yelling from the sidelines about an opposing team being offsides and another incorrectly thinking she saw a push, I haven’t gotten too much flak from coaches, parents or players.
But it’d be wrong to say that officiating is all butterflies and rainbows, because that feedback is awfully prevalent in this sport, so much so that it’s led to challenges in the retention rate of referees, further contributing to the shortage of officials, according to Farrell and Rineer.
Along those lines, Farrell said there have been “three instances of people laying hands on officials after the games” this season.
“There needs to be more of a personal responsibility of adults being adults,” Farrell added. “And understanding it’s just a game and a learning experience, that it’s a place to have fun. If more people treated it that way, we’d have more officials.”
Officiating girls' game
In my opinion, girls lacrosse referees have it even tougher, because whistles are generally more frequent, because the only protective equipment girls wear are eye masks. As a result, there isn’t much contact allowed in girls lacrosse, and referees have to especially be in control of the game for the safety of players.
“If you call it by the word of the book, you will blow your whistle every five seconds,” said Dennis Daugherty, who had no familiarity with the game when his brother-in-law suggested he become a girls lacrosse referee in the York-Adams league three years ago. “It can be out of hand. It’s learning to call the game and recognize ... you want the game to flow, you don’t want to be stopping it.”
You don’t have to have played the sport to learn how to officiate it. I had never picked up a lacrosse stick before this season. Also, if you think your schedule is too full to make time to become a referee, consider this: over the span of the past five months, a number of obstacles were thrown my way.
There was a family tragedy that pushed my emotions to the brink. My father required assistance in his recovery from knee-replacement surgery. And I had to train for the half-marathon my older brother signed me up for, which did aid in the relative level of fitness that’s preferred to officiate lacrosse.
There was also the challenge of balancing a mostly second-shift full-time job and squeezing in nights to officiate games.
Farrell said his boys lacrosse officials will generally work 18 to 26 dates over the course of the season. And the pay is good for the amount of time spent on the field ($60 for a youth game, $74 for junior varsity and $87 for varsity).
All the sacrifices are worth it when players approach after the game offering handshakes, high-fives or fist bumps, just like they did on my last day refereeing this season in a youth tournament at Manheim Township’s Weaver Fields on the first Sunday morning in May.
It was a morning that started by falling on my butt after slipping on the wet grass, and ended with finally feeling confident in my abilities to officiate the game.
That’s why I can’t wait to get back on the field next spring.
If you’re interested in becoming a lacrosse referee, visit PIAA.org for more information.
John Walk covers high school sports, including boys and girls lacrosse, for LNP. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.