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Other/Community Sports

INSIDE THE GAME: Do you have what it takes to be a high school official?

It’s no big surprise, though I’m sure not many people think about it much these days, that the 1986-87 high school basketball season was a memorable one for so many people in the Ottawa area.
That includes myself, but it took a look at this Sunday’s Illinois Valley Officials Association recruitment meeting and presentation to remind me.
Some of those around the Illinois Valley might remember, as I do, that it was the season that Ottawa High School boys basketball coach Mark Cooper led Mendota to the Class A supersectional at old Chick Evans Fieldhouse at Northern Illinois University, only to fall to Elgin St. Edward.
More will recall that was the year when Marquette beat No. 1-ranked Providence St. Mel in the super to make it to the Assembly Hall in Champaign, where sadly, they lost to Beardstown.
But I remember that as the season when I truly began to appreciate officials and the job they do.
I have to admit that prior to that year, at the games I attended as a fan, not a sports writer I was mouthy about calls that I perceived as going against my team, whichever one that happened to be. General booing was usually my catcall of choice, though I was not above questioning a ref’s eyesight, impartiality, education and choice of profession.
I wasn’t as bad as some of those around me, but yeah, I was pretty much a stinker.
Then in that year, at that same state final I just mentioned, it all changed. Going back to the Hall for the Saturday semis and finals, I was sitting underneath the basket taking pictures of what was an incredible championship game between Venice and Okawville. Tied at 54 with just over five seconds left, Venice was to inbound the ball from the sideline with the chance to win it, but after the ball was handed to the inbounder but before the clock had started, there was a whistle.
Venice all-stater and future Michigan State Spartan Jesse Hall was fouled, so one official said, as he tried to get free for the pass. He went to the line, made two free throws and Venice had the title.
The “phantom” foul has become legend in southern Illinois. In an article on the anniversary of the game, the Belleville News-Democrat repeated what everyone in the place is still asking: “Where was the contact?” Even the IHSA’s TV announcers at the time said that the official was “maybe the only person in the gym who saw it,” if it did indeed happen.
That started me thinking about the hundreds of other whistles in that game, then the thousands of whistles that were heard just that weekend and eventually to what’s probably been millions of whistles I’ve witness throughout all my years of watching game on TV and covering them in person.
And that’s the only one that stands out in my mind, and maybe even that one was correct.
Granted, it came at a crucial time on the state’s biggest stage, but who’s to say a call in Bader or Kingman isn’t as crucial, as important, as meaningful to the players, coaches and fans involved.
Yet still, thousands of men and women have the courage and the love of the sport they officiate to go out there day after day, night after night to make those calls, but that number is becoming smaller by the year.
The number of active IHSA officials has declined by 11 percent from 2013 to 2017, and figures show that 41 percent of new football refs drop out after one year and 46 percent after a single season of basketball. While the roster of refs is clearly aging in all sports, many don’t like the travel, the time away from home or just can’t stand the abuse of parents and fans. For that, we should all be ashamed.
Do refs, officials and umpires get every call right? Of course not. Not even instant replay of every single play as it happens — and who has time for that? — can assure that every call is right, right there in the spot. Do they deserve our respect for having the guts to make that call? Most certainly.
Unfortunately, my job (not to mention my age and my failing knees) are enough to prevent me from joining the ranks of the Illinois Valley Officials Association and the great work we’ve all become accustomed to every time we set foot in a gym, field, mat or pitch.
But I encourage all who loves the games they once played or are still playing, to attend Sunday’s meeting – 1 p.m. at Ottawa High School - and learn more about what it takes to become an official and how to become one.
Then maybe you’ll see if YOU have what it takes to become an official.

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