By Joe Gilloway
Gazette sports correspondent
Well, I was warned.
It was during an extended conversation Thursday evening with a friend who’s as intimately connected with Pennsylvania high school sports as you’ll find, and even more specifically Mifflin County high school sports.
I was told to expect some home-brewed officiating at the Lady Rams at Mifflin County Lady Huskies girls basketball game. I pretty much brushed it off. And not that my friend isn’t credible. I’d go to him for anything to do with high school sports. He’s been at it for decades. He’s known the players, the coaches, the officials, and anyone else connected to PIAA athletics, for just shy of 40 years. But I just didn’t think it could possibly be this bad.
I arrived at the school, and it was a sight to behold. As nice a school as you’ll find. Or at least close to that. Finished just six years ago I was told, the entrance looked like a courthouse in some upper-crust southern city. Like maybe in Savannah, Georgia, or Charleston, South Carolina. Okay, so far, so good. The place looked legit.
I was treated kindly by a handful of older men who were posing as “Security”. They made no objections when I told them where I’d like to set up my equipment to air my reports, and even asked if there’d be anything else I needed. Nice school … check. Nice people working the venue … check.
But then came what I was warned about.
The game tipped off, and I’d barely gotten my first Laffy Taffy unwrapped before our top scorer received her second personal foul call. Get opposing scorer into foul trouble … check.
Do players commit fouls? Certainly. Should they be called? Most definitely. In my best Ron Popeil voice, “But wait, there’s more.”
Our backup guard, Delaney, was assigned to blanket the Huskies best player, and it looked like more of a sleeping bag. Wherever their #3 went, our #13 was there. I know good one-on-one coverage, and Delaney was playing it. But after a spell of not being able to get into her normal offensive groove, #3 placed a forearm directly into #13’s chest, which literally pulled her off the ground and onto her back. This occurred just near center court, in view of everyone but the man mopping the floors of the palace lobby.
Do officials miss calls? Certainly they do. But are we starting to see a trend here? Yup.
So the game goes on, and it’s a tight one. The Huskies were, for the most part, playing well. They’re coached well, and they were executing. I’m not here to take anything away from a bunch of hard-working kids who were just trying to win a game. My hat is off to them. And they certainly weren’t in on anything outside of following Coach Herto’s plan.
But then came the Lady Rams’ push. They started to wear down the Huskies a bit, took a brief lead, and that seemed to be the signal. Yeah, I’m going there.
Senior forward Jamie Brann, who had no fouls at the time, came hustling up the court in an attempt to alter a shot by the Huskies #3. She committed a foul. Okay, that’s one for her, right? Nope. You see, we had a player with two personal fouls at the time, who was not remotely part of this particular play. And don’t you know, now she had her third. Her being in foul trouble, as it was just early in the second half, had a lot more value than making the call on the player with zero fouls.
I watched as the Rams coaches respectfully notified the official that he’d called the foul on the wrong player. And then I saw the official running down the court, shoulders shrugged, with a look of, “Hey, we ain’t perfect.” Those sitting at the scorer’s table were even trying to notify the official that he’d tagged the wrong player with the foul. What does that tell ya’?
So now we’re in the fourth quarter. Point guard Sam Gress is trapped, but not giving up the ball. She starts to get visibly smacked in her face by the overly-aggressive Huskies defenders. And no, I don’t blame the Huskies players. Again, they’re just trying to win a game. And basketball is a contact sport which often gets a little rough. But I watched Sam approach the official after the play, just to make him aware of what had transpired. She did so with nothing but courtesy and respect. That’s all Sam knows. She couldn’t be any other way if she tried.
But the official took exception, and told her, essentially, that if she didn’t shut her mouth and go away, she’d be assessed a technical foul. Typically a game official prefers a player approach him or her after the play, just as Sam did, and make them aware of things they may not be seeing. Not this guy. Seemed like an ideal opportunity to potentially make things a bit more of an uphill climb for Sam and her team.
So fast forward to close to the end of the game. It’s tight. The Rams are again operating on just a tad bit of momentum. Forward Nadia Romanchock, who was playing a whale of a game, gets the ball down low, just under the basket. She puts up a shot and a foul is called. The CD fans erupt. It’s just what they needed. The clock is stopped, and Nadia, a strong free throw shooter, is heading to the line to shoot two.
The official then walks over to the scorer’s table, and in a moment of what seemed like just a colossal brain fart, signals that the foul is on “#25 in green”. Has to be wrong. He’ll fix it, right? Wrong.
He called an offensive foul on a play we’ve all seen thousands of time. Player gets ball under basket. Player puts up simple little layup amongst two opposing players. Foul is called. Pretty common, huh? But how often to you see the player who is shooting the ball called for the foul? Probably only in settings like this.
Now we’re down to the wire. Somehow the Rams have stuck around and still given themselves an opportunity to win this game.
Our player, we’ll just call her #15, clearly has possession of the ball. The opposing player grabs hold too. Jump ball (or “held ball”, as it’s now referred), right? Possession arrow to the Rams. They’re gonna somehow pull this one out! But the Huskies coach calls a timeout, which was granted, and his team also is given possession of the ball. Cripes.
We are now officially in the Twilight Zone. It’s time to laugh or cry. Total free throw attempts for the Huskies 29, and for the Rams 15.
A college coach in attendance, who was there to watch one of his signees, called it the most poorly officiated game she’d ever seen. And this woman has been around the block. Knows basketball. Knows officiating. Been there, done that. And much more than most of us.
So what do you do? Well, take your lumps. Chalk it up to, “Sometimes that’s just what you get.” Sour grapes? You’d better believe it. Very sour. Extremely sour.
But I’ll never again discount my friend when he warns me of the pending officiating doom waiting up there just off Route 322 in Lewistown. Again, he’s from there. He’s seen it time and time again. Knows the routine. And he wasn’t just making small talk when preparing me for it.