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Prep sports: Under the stripes

Referees take a lot of grief, and very little praise

Posted: December 24, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: December 24, 2011 1:55 a.m.

The men and women officiating games across the Santa Clarita Valley likely aren’t familiar to most fans.

But the officials are members of the California Basketball Officials Association San Fernando Valley Unit — a group that covers many CIF-Southern Section schools, including the Foothill League.

Officials in the unit range in experience from first-year rookies to veterans of over 20 years.

Some officiate only at the high school level, while others also officiate college ball.

But they all share a couple things in common: They have a love for the game, know the rules and enjoy being a part of high school basketball.

“To me, I love the sport and I love the competition,” said Bob Rappoport, the president of the SFV Unit. “Trying to compete in officiating by doing a good job and yeah, you get yelled at at times, but the concept is if you go out there and give both teams equal calls — a fair game — in the end that’s all the coaches and fans should be asking for.”

But anyone who’s been to a high school basketball game this season knows that officials catch a lot of flak — fans can often be heard heckling officials on nearly every call.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how hard it is (to officiate),” said Valencia girls varsity head coach Jerry Mike.

“There’s a lot going on and there’s only two (officials). They have a lot to see and do and they have to be in the right position. They’re listening to the coach — there’s a lot. Of course the crowd. I think most fans probably don’t appreciate how difficult it can be.”

And that’s why officials in the SFV unit undergo training and education sessions every year — well before the season begins.

Before taking the court in the first week of the season, officials have undergone 15-20 hours of instruction, including three-to-five hours of floor instruction, Rappoport said.

“What we want is our officials to understand what the rules are, and how to interpret them,” he said.
And the training doesn’t stop there, either.

Officials in the unit start out on freshman games, eventually moving up to junior varsity and varsity contests as they progress.

There is no set time table for moving up, and officials are consistently evaluated during the season to see how they are doing.

“We have a rating committee and that’s a group normally of nine to 10 individuals who are elected by the unit. The rating committee goes out and sees approximately 30 officials each, so (moving up to varsity is) done over time.”

It is by no means a full-time job — most of the men and women taking the court hold jobs outside of officiating — but it is a full-time commitment.

Rules, uniforms, mechanics and game styles are constantly changing, and for veteran officials, that means changing the way they’ve done things for years.

“When I started there was no shot clock, there was no three-point line, the fouls were counted up by quarter, we could have a one-and-one at the quarter and it would start over every quarter. A lot of the rules were different ...,” said veteran official Craig Panama. “I think that’s what keeps it fresh too, it does change.”

But despite the officials knowledge of the game, attend any basketball game across the Foothill League and you’ll likely hear complaints emanating from the stands on each whistle.

“Officiating is a tough job because the game of basketball moves so fast,” said Saugus boys varsity head coach Derek Ballard. “They aren’t going to catch everything and it’s easy to see things from outside of the game or stands. I think officials — it’s a thankless job. They never get praised. They’re always chewed on.”

Unlike fans in the stands, though, Ballard — and the other head coaches in the league — do have the ability to catch the ear of officials on any given night.

“There are some coaches that have a reputation for working officials and you have to temper what they are asking for against the fairness of the game,” Rappoport said. “I think that’s part of a coach’s job and I think its an official’s job not to let it sway them.”

And according to coaches around the league, the officials in the SFV unit are doing as good a job as any officials in the state at keeping the game fair.

“I think the refs in our area are better,” Mike said. “We just played a tournament out in Ventura County and I think we tend to have more experienced refs and the rapport is pretty good around here.”

And the numbers seem to support Mike’s perception.

“I think we’ve got one of the top sets of officials and I’m proud of that,” Rappoport said. “We probably have a good 15 percent to 20 percent of our unit that are working college ball at one level or another, whether (junior college), Division I, Division II or Division III. We have probably 10 officials that are working Division I that were trained in our unit or were in our unit.”

That quality has helped the SFV unit continue to grow at unprecedented numbers.

“Our unit has grown substantially over the last five years from an average of 140 officials that are qualified to this year we have 201 officials,” Rappoport said. “The trend is more and more people are sticking with it.”

Local officials have also made a good showing in the playoffs — where officials aren’t allowed to officiate teams from their local area, meaning the officials Foothill fans see in the playoffs are not the same officials they may have seen during the season.

Each association creates a list of who is eligible for playoff selection.

According to Rappoport, the SFV unit has at times listed over 50 officials, and had all of them selected for playoff games in some years.

“It’s not based on seniority, its based on the ratings and who the unit feels each year are the top officials,” he said. “Our reputation with the CIF is a very, very good reputation. We have a good reputation on the girls and boys side of having officials work the Division I and Division II finals. Historically we’ve had success.”

Regardless of that success, though, don’t expect fans to stop yelling at the men and women in stripes any time soon.


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