The Season That Almost Wasn't

By Chris Ely

For the first time in a long time I see grass in my yard where ice and snow once piled up. As the snow drifts diminish, my thoughts drift towards warmer weather and another lacrosse season only a fortnight away. This means that in about 14 days we'll all undoubtedly get our first glimpse of some arms waving, eyes bugging, veins popping, purple-faced coach in a full rant about a penalty flag some striped shirt has thrown against his team.

It's an annual rite of spring; coach versus referee. But an unlikely alliance between the sport's college coaching organization (United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association- USILA), and the national referees group, (US Lacrosse Men's Collegiate Officials Committee- COC) actually rescued the college lacrosse season, and perhaps many seasons to come. Few know how close college lacrosse came to shutting down because there would be no referees to keep the game under control.

A little history: the USILA and the COC were not always so cozy- in fact, the two organizations went through a similar crisis a couple of years ago when unresolved issues produced such a rift between the two organizations that they severed their agreement. An alternative, proposed by the USILA was for every school to negotiate with referees individually- each referee as an independent contractor. Most agreed anarchy would result.

In an effort to try to resolve their differences, the USILA and the COC contracted with the East Coast Athletic Association (ECAC) in December 2002 to provide a mechanism for overseeing the assignment, observation and evaluation of officials, the negotiation of referee fees and mileage reimbursement and the handling of conduct issues with coaches. On the lacrosse field, coaches and refs rarely agree on much, but upon further review they agreed on one thing- neither group was happy with much of what the ECAC was doing.

So this year the USILA and the COC agreed to disagree with the way the ECAC was operating within the contract during the 2003 season. Of particular concern were: the methodology used to make referee assignments, the unacceptable late appointment and lack of adequate compensation for District Appointing Authorities, the haphazard scheduling and low pay afforded to observers and evaluators of officials, the inconsistent disposition of ethical and disciplinary issues between officials and coaches and the negotiation of officials' fees. Bottom line: the coaches and officials did not feel they were getting enough bang for the buck from the ECAC. So, in the fall of 2003, the two groups independently chose to end their relationships with the ECAC.

With the ECAC out of the picture, the schools and the referees had little choice but to reunite to form a partnership. Many issues stood in the way of success. With the mediation assistance of US Lacrosse Men's Division Director Jody Martin and US Lacrosse Counsel Craig Brown, exhaustive meetings were conducted with Rutgers Coach Jim Stagnitta heading up the USILA and Kevin O'Leary representing the COC. An agreement was finally reached in December.

The new agreement is highlighted by a new two-year fee and mileage schedule for all divisions; the hiring of Connie Hurlbut, former Patriot League Executive Director and WNBA Director of Operations as Director of Officiating Services; the appointment of former NCAA National Collegiate Official Warren Kimber as District Assignor Director; and the retention of all the incumbent District Area Assignors. The ill-conceived "crew system" has been abandoned. However, conceding that neither group had the resources to replicate the ECAC computerized system to manage officials' assignments, the groups agreed to continue to use the ECAC website for posting of assignments and coaches' evaluations of officials.

Charles Baber instructing collegiate officials on 2004 rules

With the new agreement in place, Officials Associations all over the country got back to the business of pre-season. The Southern Lacrosse Officials Association, for example, conducts seven 2-hour sessions in February and March which are critical. The rulebook is dissected from cover to cover and play situations are debated and sometimes kicked to death. The SLOA, located in Baltimore, is in its 83rd year providing training, assignment and leadership in lacrosse officiating. The SLOA's 160 or so members provide officiating to over 300 college, university, high school, club and youth programs in the mid-Atlantic area.

The sessions in February and March allot equal time to all the various appointing authorities, youth, high school, college and club commissioners. Communication between the appointing authorities and the membership is maintained through commissioners' reports after each session. Under the leadership of new president Greg Lacour, special break-out times and meeting rooms are provided so that all the various constituencies can receive maximum exposure.

Wes Bachur, a veteran official and Youth Commissioner, leads a special intensified class for the newest refs or the applicant class. Over the years, Bachur has recognized that the newest officials need the most instruction, so his group meets every week. The objective is for each and every "recruit" to be trained so he is not only set to take the field in a few weeks, but he understands how every member of the SLOA runs a game- a level of consistency is maintained through the generations. New this year-those referees wishing to concentrate on high school officiating receive special instruction from Steve Ruppel and Scott Miller.

Steve Ruppel leading High School class

The college rulebook gets the most attention largely because it is considered the bible of the sport. Charles Baber gathers the biggest audience of the night as he goes over the fine points of rules and interpretations for both college and high school refs. This is primarily because the NCAA rulebook is, with few exceptions, used by all of the private schools in Maryland.

The snow along the Atlantic is melting. College coaches all over the country are getting their teams ready to battle. And, with the new agreement in place, the adversarial ritual between the two sides will resume. As will the warm breezes that blow across college lacrosse fields every spring.

Wes Bachur leading the Applicant (First Year) class

February 14, 2003

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Ely on Team USA's Bob Shriver August 1, 2003

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Chris Ely Joins E-Lacrosse June, 2003