by Nick Schooler | MCLA.us
I remember a game from my senior year at UC Santa Barbara like it was yesterday.
Colorado made an early trip out to the West Coast to escape the cold of winter. Coincidentally, it rained the day before our game, so we were playing on our new turf field instead of The Pit. After the first quarter, it was obvious that we were going to win the game, and we did.
As the game progressed, things started to get out of hand and I did not feel the calls that needed to be made to protect the players were being made. After the game, I kindly let one of the officials know that he sucked, which is very out of character for me, and left the field to celebrate with my teammates and nurse my bruises.
We saw our ups and downs that season, and Colorado eventually exacted revenge, knocking us out in the semifinals at the MCLA National Championships. But that game was an important one for me. What I perceived as poor officiating in that first meeting with Colorado inspired me to become a lacrosse official.
I had enough. I believed at the time, and still do, that being a lacrosse official is the best way to give back to a game that gave me so much because – when done right – it provides a safe, consistent, fair and competitive atmosphere that makes the game fun.
I grew up in Berkeley, Calif., just outside of San Francisco, playing lacrosse in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. This is important for two reasons: the officiating in the area was very good for a non-traditional lacrosse hotbed and I was raised to question authority.
Becoming the police officer of the lacrosse field was not the logical choice for me. However, growing up playing lacrosse with great officials who understood the flow of the game showed me that refs did not have to be that way.
Referees like Gary Alabaster, Greg Simon, John Boone, Paul Kunzel and Tim Collins (I’m sure I’m missing a few more) knew the rulebook in and out, but also knew the game. When they reffed my games, I hardly knew they were there, and that is how it should be.
Lacrosse has grown exponentially over the last 15 years, but coaching and officiating has not been able to keep up. My senior year of high school, lacrosse became a California state sanctioned sport. The sport exploded from that point on. It was no longer restricted to the Bay Area and San Diego.
NCAA Division I programs began actively recruiting across the state. New teams were sprouting up in the Los Angeles and Orange County areas. Kids began picking up sticks earlier and earlier. But there is a downside to all of this; the coaching and officiating pools seemed depleted and diluted.
To compensate, officials were drawn from football, soccer, and basketball. These guys know how to ref, but it takes them a lot longer to learn the flow of the game; something only a former player can pick up right away. On top of that, the older experienced refs have not been getting any younger. Consistency with calls in a game and throughout the season is so important, and I think that has taken a major hit in the last decade or two.
Because of this need, I decided to become a lacrosse official following graduation. It paid well – about $30 per hour including travel time – and had flexible hours, neither of which can be said for coaching (also equally important).
I went to a training session where I reviewed many rules I already knew and gained insight into aspects of the game of which I was unaware. I shadowed an official for a youth game and then I was on my own. It’s really quite easy to ref as a former player. I had no trouble seeing all of the penalties. I was a little hesitant to throw flags because that was the last thing I wanted as a player, but I have slowly learned when I need to.
I eventually made up with the official who reffed that Colorado game and we occasionally get paired up together for high school games. I see where he was coming from in that game, but I still try to emulate the type of officiating that I grew up with.
I’m finishing up my 10th season as a lacrosse official. I think of myself as a casual ref. Lacrosse is my only sport and I only really want to officiate high school games. I read the rulebook several times per year and try my best to keep up on everything new, but I am by no means perfect.
I get yelled at by the coaches, “Slash! That’s a slash!” I calmly reply, “Coach, if I called every graze of the facemask a slash, we would never get out of here.” I remind players at the start of the game that lacrosse is no longer a contact sport and that it hurts me to throw a flag on big hits, but safety has to come first. I just try to be the official that I wanted as a player. I like to believe that the coaches and players respect this.
I became a lacrosse official because I wanted to make the game better. I’m sharing this as a call to former players and recent graduates to step up and give back this small but important service to the sport we love.
We need your knowledge of the game. We need your spry legs to keep up with the fast pace. We need your understanding of the flow. We need your ability to anticipate plays. We need your extra pair of eyes.
Most of all, we need extra bodies. The majority of high school games in my area are currently being officiated by a two-man crew. Even with skilled officials, we miss calls because we don’t have the third official on the field. You could be that first, second, or third ref that keeps the game safe, consistent and fair.
If you don’t have the time to coach, I highly recommend officiating. If this inspires you as a former player, please reach out to your local coordinators through US Lacrosse.
Nick Schooler was a four-year letterwinner at UC Santa Barbara. He was named to the MCLA Division I All-American second team in 2006 as a midfielder while also serving as a captain for the Gauchos. He was a member of the UCSB national championship squads in 2004 and 2005.