Monday, 27 July 2020 15:43

Local officials ‘more prepared than ever’ despite uncertainty of fall athletics

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Jason Graham, who has 35 years of officiating experience, said officials are more prepared for the hopeful upcoming season because of COVID-19. Jason Graham, who has 35 years of officiating experience, said officials are more prepared for the hopeful upcoming season because of COVID-19. Contributed photo.

ROCKINGHAM — With so much extra time on their hands this spring and summer, area referees are now more prepared than ever to officiate high school and college sporting events.

Since the COVID-19 sports dead period went into effect in mid March, high school officials have joined players and coaches on sidelines. As much a part of the game as the participants, officials have had to adapt to life without sports, too.

But as the North Carolina High School Association continues to try and create a plan for fall athletics, three local referees have been staying on top of their game. 

J.R. Cottle, Jason Graham and Dan Wright, all high school sports officials who call Richmond County home, have 85 years of combined officiating experience. Graham and Wright also officiate Division II and Division III college football, respectively.

The most impacted during the spring season was Cottle, who officiates just soccer. Starting his officiating career in 1998, he began refereeing high school games three years ago. 

He also spends the majority of his spring and summers officiating showcase tournaments across the state and country for the United States Soccer Federation and the North Carolina Youth Soccer Association.

“When all this first started, our season had just kicked off,” Cottle recalled. “I was on my way to a Pinecrest girls’ soccer game and got the email that said the season was postponed. Even then, I think we all knew that was going to be it due to uncertainty about the virus.

“It sucked for officials, but it really sucked for the players and the kids. I couldn’t imagine losing my senior year over something I couldn’t control.”

Cottle explained that officiating soccer, for him and many others, is a great way to stay in shape and stay involved with a sport he loves at a competitive level.

J.R. Cottle (red) officiates a Richmond boys’ soccer game last fall.

Graham, who began calling baseball and soccer as a teenager, started officiating high school football 25 years ago. He’s done high school basketball for 20 years, and will be entering his eighth season of college football this fall.

His resume also includes officiating three state championship football games, an East-West All-Star basketball game and is a white hat in the South Atlantic Conference (D-II football).

Graham’s game schedule wasn’t impacted as much as Cottle’s, as the majority of the high school basketball season was completed by the time the dead period went into place. Wright is in the same boat, but the two have lost hours of in-person training and seminars, as well as try-out periods.

“The spring is the most important time for college football because we try out for other conferences and try to move up to higher levels,” Graham explained. “I know we’ve missed a lot of scrimmage opportunities because this time of year we’re normally traveling up and down the east coast trying to get better.”

Wright began officiating soccer at age 16, added baseball, basketball and football when he was 30, and moved into high school officiating six years ago. He’s done college football for three seasons and officiates Old Dominion Athletic Conference and USA South Conference games.

Some of his “most exciting” moments on the field were during the third (Charlotte Catholic), fourth (Lee County) and state championship (4A) rounds of high school football last year. 

Being on the football or soccer field, or the basketball court, is Wright’s way of escaping everyday life.

“My stress-free zone is when I’m on the field or court. It gives me a chance to relax from the hustle and bustle of life,” Wright shared. “When I’m out there, I have one job and that’s to officiate the ball game.

“While I miss sports, the good thing about this has been being able to focus on family and my other job,” he added. “But I do miss the exercise and being on the go three or four nights a week.”

Dan Wright stands on the sideline between plays during a Richmond football game in 2017.

One benefit of coronavirus travel restrictions and a limitation on scrimmaging has allowed the trio of officials to hit the books and study for when athletics return.

Graham explained the spring and summer seasons are used for rules preparations and study clinics. He and other officials would have to drive to Wilmington or Columbia once or twice a week, but now with Zoom meetings, officials are getting more prep time.

“COVID-19 has actually allowed us to attend four or five clinics a week because they’re online,” Graham said. “The ironic thing is we’re more prepared than ever, but we may not even have a season.”

Wright added that he’s “just as busy as we’ve ever been in terms of preparing,” and that he’s “begging to get back out on the field.”

The fall sports season in North Carolina also sees boys’ soccer played, and Cottle said his training also hasn’t stopped. Starting this week, soccer officials can begin taking their annual aptitude test and complete other required trainings.

All three are holding onto hope that fall sports will return in some capacity at the high school and collegiate levels. Concerns still linger about the spread of the virus and how cleaning sports equipment, physical contact and social distancing will fit into the new landscape.

“Because there’s a lot more information on the spread of the virus and how to contain it, I’m hoping they’re putting a plan in place to allow the kids to play,” Cottle said. “I think sports are what people need right now to help take their mind off of things. We need to try to get back to some sense of normalcy.”

Graham and Wright echoed Cottle, adding that when sports return, it will hopefully be business as usual.

“Whether I’m doing football or basketball, there’s not one thing that’s going to change how I officiate a game when we get back,” Wright said. “We’re going to follow (the guidelines) the NCHSAA sends down, but as officials, we have a job to do and we’re going to do it.”

Last modified on Monday, 27 July 2020 17:27

Kyle Pillar

Three-time award-winning sports editor. Indiana University of Pennsylvania communications media and journalism alumni. English teacher, Ninth Grade Academy.

Submit local sports scores to: kpillar@richmondobserver.com

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