Earning their stripes: High school football referees, crews passionate, meticulous about their craft

Earning their stripes: High school football referees, crews passionate, meticulous about their craft

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Earning their stripes: High school football referees, crews passionate, meticulous about their craft

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The Jamba Juice at the corner of Guadalupe and McClintock roads in Tempe is all but empty.

It’s just before 4:30 p.m. Thursday, and only two tables are taken. A woman sits at one, and four men sit at another, each peering down at an iPad.

“OK,” Don Cerimeli says. “Let’s look at some of the plays from last week’s game.”

In 21/2 hours, Don’s crew will work the Tempe Marcos de Niza-Scottsdale Saguaro football game. This week, as they do every week, the officials gather at the Jamba Juice closest to the game they’ve been assigned.

The get-together serves two purposes: The officials, using video from Hudl, review some of the calls they made — or didn’t make — the previous week. They also go over tendencies and alignments they’re likely to see in the game they’ll call later.

“The one thing we don’t want to do is go out there and not have an idea of what they’re doing,” Don says.

Don, 46, is the referee and the lead voice at the sessions. His brother, Dean, 48, is the umpire, and Dean’s son, Tyler, 23, is the back judge. The crew has two new faces this year in linesman Aaron Hochuli, the son of NFL referee Ed Hochuli, and line judge DJ June.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association makes the game assignments, but the crews are formed on their own. The per-game pay for each official: $59 plus $10 in mileage (the mileage amount changes for games outside the Valley). Don estimates each official makes between $600 and $700 per year but spends more than that on uniforms, shoes, camps, Jamba Juices and post-game dinners.

“It’s not something you’re going to get rich by,” he says.

For 20 minutes or so, the crew goes over more than a dozen plays they’ve picked out from the Snowflake-Show Low game the previous Friday. The conversation is informal and free-flowing; anybody can chime in, although Don leads the discussion.

Tyler asks everyone to look at Play 96.

“Watch Aaron on the play. He’s got a little bit of happy feet,” Tyler said. “There’s no reason to move. He’s a lot stronger if he stays put.” Tyler then adds, for the visitors’ benefit, “In officiating, if you look like you know what you’re doing, it buys you a lot.”

Much of the discussion focuses on little things fans wouldn’t notice but are important to the crew. One example: As a player is driven out of bounds on the opponents’ sideline, Hochuli is standing with his back to the bench. Don tells him he needs to turn around so he can see the sideline when he makes his call; that way, if there’s a fracas, Hochuli is in position to see what’s going on.

They review two fumble calls by June and a play in which they got together and picked up a flag he threw after a helmet-to-helmet hit.

“To everybody’s credit on this crew, there’s no ego,” Don says. “We’re going to try to get it right. At the end of the day, it really is about the kids. We want to get in, get out and be in position to make the right call.”

After the previous week’s plays are reviewed, Dean shifts the conversation forward and says, “Do we want to talk about the teams’ tendencies?”

The four officials — June has run into traffic and will meet them at Marcos — discuss how both Saguaro and Marcos run read-option attacks using four- or five-wide receiver sets.

“We have to see the ball,” Dean says. “There’s a lot of fakes with both teams. We have to make sure we know where the ball is.”

The officials leave Jamba Juice at 5 p.m. and are settled in Marcos coach Roy Lopez’s office — their home for the night — 10 minutes later. One of the first things they do after unpacking is shine their black tennis shoes with Armor All cleaning wipes.

As he grabs a wipe, Don reminds his crew that the game will be televised and start at 7:07 p.m. instead of 7. He doesn’t want the teams hanging out on the sideline with nothing to do, “so let’s make sure they stay in their locker rooms until we get them.” He also wants his officials to be aware of the extra scrutiny that will come with the game being on TV.

“If you can’t tell, if you’re not sure, the flag stays in the pocket,” he says.

Several times over the next 30 minutes — as the crew again goes over some of their calls from the previous week — Don asks Tyler what time it is. At 6:20, the officials, escorted by a Marcos de Niza official, walk out of the office and onto the field through an auxiliary basketball gym so they won’t be harassed by fans.

Don and Dean meet with Lopez and Saguaro coach Jason Mohns for a couple of minutes. They get the numbers of the teams’ respective captains, remind the coaches of the 7:07 start and ask if they plan to run anything tricky. They also tell both coaches that they don’t want to have to eject a player and thus make him ineligible for the playoffs the following week.

“If we have a problem out on the field, you’ll get a message from us so you have a chance to deal with it,” Don tells Lopez.

Don calls this “preventative officiating.” They take the same approach if there’s a minor violation that doesn’t affect the play. Rather than throw a flag for the infraction, they prefer to tell the player what they saw and warn there will be a penalty if it happens again.

At 6:45, the officials walk back to Lopez’s office. They receive last-minute instructions from Don — “Unless you see a punch that connects, you don’t have anything,” he says — before again heading to the field.

Don gathers the captains at midfield. Saguaro wins the coin toss, and quarterback Luke Rubenzer says his team wants the ball.

“Are you sure?” Don asks him. “Your coach said he wants to defer.”

A sheepish Rubenzer corrects his call.

The game appears to proceed without much controversy, although the two teams are yapping at one another. But when the officials get together in Lopez’s office at halftime, one of the first thing Don tells his crew is, “We’ve got a lot of guys flying around and some guys aren’t interested in playing football. They’re just interested in making huge hits. Have a huge presence.”

Those emotions boil over in the second half. A Marcos player is injured; an angry Lopez believes he was the victim of a cheap shot. Don listens to Lopez for a few seconds, then turns his back. He wants Lopez to calm down and get back to the game rather than prolong the argument.

“He was going off on Saguaro, saying, ‘How can you not call that?’ ” Don says later. “I told him, ‘Coach, we were lucky enough to see it. It wasn’t a cheap shot.”

The game ends without further problems, and the officials trot back to Lopez’s office. They’re joined by Gary Whelchel, the state commissioner of officials, and John McDonnell, an officials evaluator from the AIA. McDonnell goes over several plays from the game, asking the crew what they saw. He wraps it up by saying, “That was a well-officiated game. Talk about having control of the game.”

The officials change out of their uniforms. June and Hochuli take showers in the Marcos locker room. All that’s left is to pick out a place to eat. Someone suggests a Native New Yorker about 3 miles up the street.

The crew tries to find a restaurant where it won’t run into any coaches or players. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

“Two years ago, we worked the Ahwatukee Bowl (between Phoenix Mountain Pointe and Phoenix Desert Vista),” Tyler says. “After the game, we drive to the Native New Yorker around the corner and just as our food shows up, the entire Mountain Pointe team walks in. The coach hands a restaurant staffer a DVD, and all of a sudden, the game is on every TV in the place.”

The officials get a break this time. The restaurant is nearly empty. They order their meals and engage in small talk for the next 45 minutes. The Arizona State-Washington State game is on, and there’s as much conversation about the Sun Devils as there is about the game they just officiated.

At 11:45, they say their goodbyes and head to their cars. They’ll receive their game check through direct deposit.

It works out to about $9.85 per hour.

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