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The Road To Varsity: My Goal Achieved, It's Time To Take My Game To The Next Level, Too

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In early November, I received the email I’ve been waiting ten years for: “You have new games”, read the subject line--- and when I logged into the officials’ website— I received my first high school VARSITY assignments!!  I could barely contain my excitement, but being superstitious, I refrained from blogging about it before now so as not to jinx myself.  Now, with several games behind me, I can tell the world:  I'm no longer on the road to varsity; I have finally arrived at my destination!

Basketball, official's jersey, and whistle

Varsity games are awesome. They are often more competitive and physical than non-varsity contests, as they feature more experienced players, coaches and officials. Players on the radar of college recruiters make the outcomes of games and individual performances more significant.  By extension, the visibility of the officiating crew and the expectations of their performance is equally magnified. These elements conspire to create a level of pressure to perform, so much so that the elation of achieving a long-sought-after goal has quickly been replaced with a new level of angst. Now, after several varsity games behind me, I clearly see a new road sign that I was not expecting.  It reads:  “ Welcome to the Land of Varsity:  Proceed with caution”. 

Varsity games FEEL different.  The excitement when the crew arrives on the floor during pre-game warm-ups is palpable.  The entire atmosphere - the uniforms, the music, the fans - seem bigger and bolder than non-varsity game. The biggest differences, however, are in two separate but related areas:  Managing games and managing the coaches.  Managing the games involves reading the skill level of the players and adjusting our judgment on what we deem legal, illegal or incidental contact. Varsity games move faster and involve more player contact. Adjusting the calls to the skill level is required, and  much easier said than done.  Of the last six varsity matches I officiated, each had a different level of skill, a different flow to the game. The sixth game was by far the toughest and nothing in the previous five prepared me for it.

No harm, no foul

The sixth game featured a  point guard for the visiting  team who was 5’4 muscular and quick. He could penetrate the lane for layups and draw contact but no foul. There were times when two defenders attempted to block his shot and contact was made while he was airborne, but still no foul was called.  I was surprised, and brought it up for discussion with my fellow officials in the locker room during halftime,   Their feeling was that his skill level was so significantly higher than most of the players on the court that he was not disadvantaged by the contact.  It was rare that the contact resulted in him falling to the floor, but in games I officiated in years past, it was not uncommon to consider such contact a foul. Officials often refer to “bodies on the floor” as one indication of whether or not to call a foul.  This is not the sole criteria for a foul, but is taken into consideration as two defenders could have collided or tripped amongst themselves in going for a rebound.  Rebounding action in this game featured an enormous amount of contact between players, all over 6 feet tall, jockeying for offensive rebounds, but not all contact was called as fouls.

This was by far the toughest adjustment for me to make.  Our decision to call or no-call the contact was put to the test — a test that our crew later felt we had failed.  While we were consistent, and both teams reached bonus in the first half and double bonus in the second half, game flow was not achieved.  Whistles were blown frequently, especially in the fourth quarter, and the players were getting frustrated, saying, “Why won’t the refs let us play basketball?” In our post game conference, we felt we matched our call for both teams, but we did not match the calls on the plays.  The concept of matching plays versus calls, at this stage of my officiating career, is a whole new level of officiating that I am only now beginning to understand.

Managing the coaches 

The second area of challenge is in managing the coaches.  In addition to the aforementioned “test” of the crew and our foul calling, the crew — and more specifically, I - was singled out because I was the newer face on the crew. I had been warned over the years about this.   My first foul was questioned loudly and in an animated manner by the coach. He questioned my interpretation of contact and my judgement on a block call by his player.  I responded as I had been trained to do, by acknowledging his question or comment, and then moving on. But even with that, my response was insufficient.  I did notice he questioned me more than the others. In another game, I was again tested by the coaches on my first out-of-bounds call, which occurred within the first two minutes of the game. I awarded the ball to “white”, and the coach of the “blue” team, who was positioned at the opposite end of the court from the play, jumped up and argued. Later in the same game, that coach screamed at me, “You’re not calling anything!”, and I charged him with a technical foul for unsportsmanlike conduct.  His team lost by 5 points, and I ask myself if the technical foul had cost his team the game?  Could the technical have been prevented? Would ignoring his unsporting outburst have been the right thing to do, or would it send a message that its okay to scream at an official? (It's not)

The Journey Continues 

I have another varsity game tonight and my expectations of the game and myself have been raised a notch.  I am a bit wiser now and expect to be tested once again, both by the game itself and the coaches.  I have two new partners as well in my officiating crew, and my heightened sense of game awareness can only help.  So, while The Road to Varsity has ended, the journey towards officiating mastery continues.