Matt DaSilva | @mdasilva15
Peter Bluvol had plans May 11, 2013. He was supposed to travel from Columbus, Ohio, back to his native Long Island for a first communion. A college lacrosse official, Bluvol thought his season was over—until his phone rang with a call from area code 315.
“Who do I know in Syracuse?” he thought.
It was Mike Branski, a top official from Black River, N.Y. He was coming to the Midwest as crew chief of the Notre Dame-Detroit Mercy NCAA tournament game.
“How do you feel about working Saturday?” Branski asked.
Bluvol looked at his wife and said, “You’re going without me.”
Selection Sunday applies to officials too. And when you get an invitation to the dance, you don’t say no.
“You get the email from [NCAA director of officials] Warren Kimber saying, ‘Game assignments are coming out on Sunday, and you’ll hear something Monday.’ But I didn’t think I’d get a game,” Bluvol said. “We’re out here in little ole’ Columbus. It’s such an East Coast-dominant game.”
Bluvol was one of 16 officials who received first-time NCAA tournament assignments in 2013, according to Bob Curcio, director of the Officials Observation Program. All 16 rose in the ranks as a result of the program, a joint venture of the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (USILA) and College Officials Committee (COC) of US Lacrosse.
Curcio, Kimber and assigners target officials in the densest college lacrosse regions. The programs started in 2004, since which the number of officials in districts 1-6 has increased by 48 percent.
With financial support for the observation program coming mostly from US Lacrosse, an average of 341 college officials per year received observations between 2007 and 2012.
But it’s not so much the quantity as the quality. Over the last five years, 110 officials who were identified as a result of the program worked their first NCAA tournament games. They get instant, in-depth feedback from Hall of Fame-caliber officials on everything from their physical appearance to mechanics and communication tactics. Reports then are submitted to the district assigners, who use the information to promote the most competent officials.
“This is a joint effort of US Lacrosse, the USILA, the COC and the NCAA in terms of funding, moral support and technical support,” Curcio said. “It’s a pretty big collaborative effort.”
The unsung heroes of the operation — the 35 observers who see log hundreds of miles for a nominal $75 fee per game plus travel reimbursement — enjoy the opportunity to give back to the game when their joints betray them.
Paul Caldwell, a District 6 observer, officiated his first lacrosse game for $5 in 1964. He reached the pinnacle of pinstripes in 1985 when he worked the Johns Hopkins-Syracuse NCAA Division I championship game at Brown.
“I could run pretty well then,” said Caldwell, who later became the head coach at Ohio State from 1994-97. “I’m going on 75. My hips are gone.”
That didn’t stop Caldwell from traveling 1,200 miles in one week last season, when he observed officials at Walsh (Ohio), Washington & Jefferson (Pa.), St. Vincent (Pa.) and Ohio Valley (W. Va.).
“It was in a suburb of Parkersburg, if you can believe there’s a suburb there,” Caldwell said of the last stint in West Virginia. “If it’s not the end of nowhere, you can see it from there.”
Curcio and Kimber themselves observe dozens of games per season.
“It’s on the spot right there after the game — anywhere from a 15- to 20-minute talk to an hour postgame,” Curcio said. “You go over everything: the good, the bad and indifferent.
Jim Vignona of Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y., has been observed several times since he started officiating college games five years ago, by Long Island luminaries like Al Blau and Bob Schwalb. “It just gets you in other people’s radar,” Vignona said.
Schwalb, who retired from officiating in 1999 after working his 29th consecutive NCAA tournament and 13th straight final four, conferred with Vignona after one game and told him he had a tick that allowed faceoff men to predict his cadence.
“I tended to rock back before the whistle, and it was giving the faceoff kids an advantage,” Vignona said. “It’s things like that you don’t know until one of these observers points it out to you.”
Vignona got his first NCAA tournament gig in 2012, a Division III first-round game between Scranton and Gettysburg. Everything about game day—from pre-game conferences to the national anthem—goes up a notch come playoffs.
“It’s a neat feather in your cap,” he said. “To put that NCAA tournament patch on your shirt, it’s a neat experience.”
In addition to spring season observations, Curcio and Kimber select 15 officials each fall for intensive training and evaluation at the Nick Colleluori Classic in Ridley, Pa.
Syracuse officials Scott MacCaull participated in fall 2011. Before his observation, MacCaull said he focused almost too much on his mechanics and making the right call. He learned he needed to be more accessible to the coaches.
MacCaull’s first NCAA tournament game was Ohio Wesleyan at Gettysburg in 2012. “You do get jitters,” he said. “I remember coming back the next day and my assigner giving me a modified middle school game. That’s their way of saying, ‘Hey, don’t forget where you came from.’”
For Bluvol, the Columbus official assigned to the Detroit Mercy-Notre Dame game, the novelty has not worn off. It wound up being closer than expected, with the Titans up 7-3 on the heavily favored Irish going into the fourth quarter before Notre Dame rallied with a 10-man ride to win 9-7.
Bluvol was the only member of the crew who had seen Detroit Mercy prior to that game. The Titans tend to milk stall warnings and 30-second counts to their advantage, he told his crew. They made it a point to be consistent in their application of the rule, which was new in 2013.
“That was one of the things we talked about in my observation,” Bluvol said. “Consistency.”
Curcio sent Bluvol and the other first-timers an email before they took the field, encouraging them to enjoy the moment.
“It was a nice touch to know at that stage, he still had something to do with [the experience]. He cared,” Bluvol said. “And when I went back to work that Monday, I sent an email to Warren Kimber thanking him for the opportunity.
“There were eight [Division I] games that weekend, and only 24 officials working out of how many in the United States. If I never get another playoff game, I could say I did one.”
The US Lacrosse Officials Education Program offers numerous training opportunities, programs and tools to help develop officials across the country. From the men's and women's officials observation program grants, to the men's and women's LAREDO and LEAD/Developmental clinics, US Lacrosse aims to serve every official across the country.Officials Education Program