Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Officially speaking

(This article appeared in the Jan. 27 issues of The Valley Press and West Hartford Press)

Never has there been a more underappreciated, misunderstood group of people than the intrepid men and women who officiate our high school sporting events.

At best, they’re invisible when players, coaches and fans opine that they are performing at their best. When the time comes that they are noticed, it generally coincides with a cascade of catcalls and various suggestions on how they can better do their job.

Focusing on basketball, one of the more difficult decision on the part of the referees has to be how to handle the hand-checking and jostling that is often rampant at the point of attack.

Some teams stress aggressive man-to-man defense, which inevitably increases the occurrence of contact. If both teams turn up the heat and the officials interpret the rules literally, games could easily lose their flow and the number of disqualifications as a result of the five-foul limit could turn the game into a travesty.

On Jan. 15, the Simsbury girls encountered Northwest Catholic in West Hartford. Northwest coach Karl Herbert bases his defensive philosophy on aggressive play. His young team executed the strategy exquisitely at the start of the game and took command of the game.

Simsbury coach Jim Fiedler isn’t the type to rant and rave on the sidelines. I didn’t have any idea that he was upset about the way the game was being called, but he felt the Northwest girls were getting away with hand-checking and that if affected his team’s ability to execute.

Let me stress that Fiedler approached the subject in a gentlemanly manner. I feel he had every right to question the officials’ interpretation given the nature of the game and the way it turned out (Simsbury battled back to within three points late in the game before losing, 51-46). I also feel the officials did a terrific job, handed the tough assignment of interpreting the rule in a game between two teams with divergent defensive philosophies.

“I talked to the refs about it at halftime,” Fielder said. “There’s a rule emphasis this year that you can’t hand-check on the perimeter or put your arm on the girl. [Northwest] was doing that but they weren’t calling it.”

The National Federation of State High School Associations indeed has the following statement on its website as a “point of emphasis” going into the 2010-11 season:

PERIMETER PLAY. Two illegal actions are taking place on the perimeter of the court that are particularly problematic. First, defensive players are illegally using their hands to “check” the ball handler/dribbler. …

A. Hand checking.

1) Hand checking is any tactic using the hands or arms that allows a player, on offense or defense, to control (hold, impede, push, divert, slow or prevent) the movement of an opposing player.

2) Hand checking is a foul and is not incidental contact.

3) Defensive players shall not have hand(s) on the offensive player. When a player has a hand on, two hands on or jabs a hand or forearm on an opponent, it is a foul.

4) When a player contacts an opponent with his or her hands as an aid in starting, stopping, driving around, defending a screen, controlling or anticipating the opponent’s next move, it is a foul. Players may not place their hands on an opponent with or without the ball.

5) Much of the roughness in the interscholastic game today is a direct result of not assessing the proper penalty when illegal contact with the hand(s) occurs.

Said Fiedler: “If you can hand-check and put arms on people in the perimeter, you can run a good press.”

He quoted part of the above rule.

He said the officials explained that they had called eight fouls against Northwest and just three against Simsbury.

“We don’t press and we don’t hand-check,” Fielder said. He added that they shouldn’t use the foul count as a reference in debating the interpretation of the rule.

“You don’t balance it off because one team has more fouls than the other,” he said. “You call the game as it’s played on the court. … I teach my girls not to hand-check because that’s what the rulebook says. Other teams are doing it and getting away with it.”

Aggressive, pressing defense is Herbert’s hallmark.

“With every team I’ve had, that’s what we look for,” he said. “With this team, it’s taken a little time to come so we decide to press early to create an aggressive feel. That’s how we have to play. That’s how we try to set the tempo every game so we start out pressing, we start out playing man-to-man and we start out very aggressive. Hopefully that carries throughout the game.”

He said his team has not experienced foul trouble as a result.

“Actually I’d like to see us get a little more aggressive. If that means getting more fouls diving after the ball and going more aggressively to the ball, I think I’ll live with that,” Herbert said.

“We had two of the better officials in my eyes. They let you play. Both teams are athletic. You have to let them determine how they’re going to call the game.”

I asked another official who did the Northwest-East Catholic boys game Jan. 17 and he made the same point. He said he will issue warnings if it’s getting rough and that he adjusts his approach as the game dictates.

I can’t argue with that. We don’t want games called so closely that multiple players are fouling out. On the other hand, Fiedler is right if the rulebook is to be interpreted literally.

No comments: