Photo By: Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
When it comes to this season of high school boys lacrosse, it’s debatable whether more shots have been taken on the field by players or off the field by those attacking/defending the change in referee associations.
Spurred by a dispute over compensation, the switch from the Northern California Lacrosse Referees Association (NCLRA) to Peninsula Sports Inc. (PSI) has some coaches fuming, the two officiating groups feuding and the Central Coast Section commissioner staunchly backing the decision made by her member schools.
“The principals and athletic directors said, ‘We’re not going to be held hostage by official associations and pay more than we’re willing to pay,’” Commissioner Nancy Lazenby Blaser said. “‘If we can’t (find an agreeable group), then we won’t play lacrosse.’”
The schools found one in PSI, which supplies referees for the other CCS sports. But PSI had never officiated boys lacrosse, and several coaches told the Town Crier that inexperience has negatively impacted the play this season. They said most of the referees lack the necessary training.
“It’s been frustrating this year,” Mountain View High coach Joe Juter said. “A lot of the refs don’t understand basic rules, and it’s affecting the safety and integrity of the game.”
Sacred Heart Prep’s Joe Thompson is one of at least two other Santa Clara Valley Athletic League coaches (the other would not go on the record) who agrees.
“The refs for the NCLRA are hands down better than any of the officials we have been supplied by PSI – there is no comparison,” Thompson said. “PSI officials this season, in most cases, do not know all of the rules nor do they understand the game.”
Yet not one coach has contacted PSI to complain about the officiating, according to President Mark Risley, and neither have their athletic directors. Risley, who founded PSI 20 years ago, adamantly denied that there have been problems with the transition.
“It’s just the opposite – we’ve had a very smooth year,” he said. “It’s been an incredibly easy year.”
While Lazenby Blaser didn’t go that far, she is pleased with PSI’s performance under the circumstances.
“PSI says it’s going fine, but it’s not perfect; PSI clearly doesn’t have as many experienced officials (as the NCLRA),” she said. “It should only get better; it takes a year or two to get a coterie of guys and gals trained.”
The commissioner noted that most of the complaints about the officiating have come from coaches in the SCVAL, one of four leagues in the CCS with boys lacrosse teams.
“The other leagues aren’t complaining,” she said. “They’ve accepted it and are moving forward.”
Juter believes he knows why the loudest critics come from the SCVAL.
“We’re the largest body of coaches and have the most competitive public school league in the section,” he said. “We have a lot of very competitive one-goal games; when you win by 20, no one’s complaining about the refs.”
Risley said such criticism is “the nature of the business,” as coaches in every sport tend to blame refs when they lose. Like PSI’s other officials, the lacrosse refs “have to be certified,” he said, and each of them received at least 20 hours of training.
“The group we replaced (NCLRA) is an aging group and a good ol’ boys club,” Risley said. “(Our refs) are younger, they understand the game and are in the proper position (on the field).”
NCLRA Chairman Gary Alabaster said the experience of his refs should not be discounted and questioned PSI’s ability to officiate the sport.
“They had probably never seen a lacrosse game before (this year),” he said. “I had an email from (Risley) forwarded to me that said, ‘CCS would rather hire Mickey Mouse to referee lacrosse games than the NCLRA’ – and that’s exactly what they got.”
But Lazenby Blaser noted that CCS doesn’t hire refs – the schools and leagues do – and that the NCLRA has only itself to blame for the situation. Member schools were unhappy with the NCLRA even before the demand for a raise, she said, because they discovered the organization was paying refs a larger cut of its fees than allowed by CCS (the maximum is $69 per game).
“They painted us into a corner,” Lazenby Blaser said.
The NCLRA asked for a $9 increase, according to Alabaster, who argued his refs are worthy of making more than those in other sports.
“Thousands of people can referee football, basketball and baseball in Northern California, but only a handful have seen lacrosse before,” he said. “It’s an extremely difficult sport to referee – it’s very physical and active.”
Leagues in the North Coast Section and Sac-Joaquin Section agreed to pay $72, Alabaster added, and the NCLRA could “have worked something out (in the CCS), but we never got a chance to negotiate.”
Don’t expect that to change. Lazenby Blaser believes PSI – which Risley said has given refs just one raise in the past eight years – is here to stay.
“If you ask me, no, we can’t go back at this point,” she said. “We’re always willing to work with people, but the NCLRA has been deceptive in their business dealings with us.”
If there’s no going back, Juter hopes there’s a better way to move forward.
“I don’t know whose fault it is, but I just want it to get better,” he said. “I’d like everybody to get along next year.”