Northern Virginia high school soccer refs come under scrutiny

Nearly 10 minutes of time was added by the referee in a game between Chantilly and Wakefield.
Nearly 10 minutes of time was added by the referee in a game between Chantilly and Wakefield. (Joel Richardson For The Washington Post)
By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The incidents have come in different corners of Virginia this boys' and girls' soccer season -- a quick whistle here, a late call there, inconsistent decisions involving injury time and clock management that leave coaches and players exasperated.

Coaches from teams, top to bottom, have at least one story to tell. Nearly all finish with the same conclusion: In the Northern Virginia high school game, refereeing has become an issue. As the soccer season moves deeper into the playoffs, concerns that referees are "leaving their footprints" on games, in the words of Hayfield boys' Coach Dan Drickey, has only been heightened.

The number of referees that are changing and impacting games, several coaches said, is reaching a level where something must be done -- even if it's as simple as creating an evaluation system.

"It's gotten progressively more inconsistent," said Drickey, whose comments echoed those of several area coaches. ". . . Win, lose or draw, there have been very few games where I walked off the field and to the middle of the field and the first words between coaches has not been 'good game' or 'congrats' or anything like that. More [often] it's been, 'Wow, can you believe that ref?' "

In an area in which an average of 60 and as many as 100 high school soccer games are played on a given night in Northern Virginia in the spring, finding enough referees to cover all the games sometimes supersedes having the right experience and the right quality to do so at a high level across the board.

It is a constant give-and-take that has coaches and referees alike searching for solutions.

"Quality is a continuing challenge and battle," said Miles Kara, assigner for the Commonwealth Soccer Officials Association, an organization that supplies referees specifically to high school games. " . . . Sometimes we work on the margins a little bit. I don't like to, but sometimes we do."

Kara must identify the most important games across several regions -- rivalries, top teams facing off, faster-paced and more physical matchups -- and line up the right referees to cover them.

"Over the years I've described my job as rocket science with a healthy dose of chaos and a dollop of serendipity," he said.

The CSOA has a database that ranks both referees and games to help Kara sort through the assignments. With referees working just part-time and games spread down to Stafford and up to Arlington, there are no guarantees about whether the most qualified referees can make it to the top games on a given night.

Becoming eligible to be a high school official involves mandatory training once a year in which referees review the "Points of Emphasis," or what CSOA commissioner Peter Stenner called the referee's bible. They also must pass a test to be eligible, scoring at least a 70, and must score 80 or above to be eligible to work in the playoffs. Virginia High School League referees follow the National Federation of State High School Association rulebook almost without exception, Stenner said.

Referees are evaluated at times during their careers by certified "assessors," and the CSOA also ranks referees and doles out assignments -- center referee or linesman, level of play of games, etc. -- based on ability and experience.

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