As “Grandpa,” Roy and a couple other fellows were laying around in overalls singing “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all,” my mind immediately jumped to the Bradley Central basketball programs.
While yes, they’ve had tremendous overall success recently with both teams making the TSSAA substate playoffs the last two years (three for the girls) and the Bearettes earning their first trip to a state tournament since 2000 a little over a week ago, they have been “snake bit,” or should I say “zebra bit,” in their most important postseason games.
Before I go any farther let me reinterate my “bona fides” as a sports official. For more than a quarter of a century I’ve called everything from rec league to high school to NCAA Division III and NAIA baseball and softball.
I have a very healthy respect for those who chose to endure the abuse of being a referee or an umpire. It’s an extremely difficult, thankless job. No matter what you call, or don’t call, you’re going to make somebody unhappy. Plus they usually aren’t shy about letting you know how they feel.
I’ve been yelled at, threatened, met in the parking lot by an angry player I threw out of a game (Rudy Felton had my back on that one) and even had a player “expose” himself on the field due to disagreeing with one of my calls. One player even had to pay more than $300 for damages he did to my car, although at the time he threw his bat over the fence and into the parking lot, he had no idea it was going to land on the trunk of MY classic 1969 Plymouth Fury III.
While every official tries to get all of their calls right, sometimes mistakes happen. That’s not what this column is about. That’s just part of the human element of the game.
I’m not complaining about the difference between a blocking or a charging foul call in a late December holiday tournament or non-district game.
What I’m referring to here is when absurd calls, or no-calls, are made in important “do-or-die” postseason games, when team’s seasons are on the line.
Games where only the best officials, who have earned the right to be on the court, are given the responsibility of traveling to a different part of the state to avoid any whisper of bias in their calls.
The majority of local sports fans are familiar with last year’s “no call” on the elbow to the face of District 5-AAA Player of the Year Caroline Smith, who now plays for nationally-ranked Lee University, which is headed to the NAIA National Championships this week.
In the Region 3-AAA championship game in Crossville, the officials were “letting the teams play” and with the Bearettes up by double digits late in the opening half a Cumberland County player came down with a rebound and spun around, elbows extended, and nailed Smith in the cheek, sending her not only to the ground, but she collapsed twice more before being taken to the hospital for stitches to close the gash in her mouth.
The man in stripes standing less than 10 feet from the play and looking straight at it, did stop the game immediately when Smith hit the floor, despite Cumberland County having possession of the ball. He claimed he didn’t see a foul, and neither did either of his partners.
Due to the concussion she suffered, Smith was not able play in the substate game two days later, in which her disheartened teammates were upset in overtime by Lawrence County, preventing a trip to the state tournament.
Two days after that, the Bradley boys traveled to Murfreesboro for a substate game of their own only to see one of the most bizarre endings in coach Kent Smith’s 17 years on the Bear bench.
With the game tied and time running out in a very well officiated game to that point, Bradley turned the ball over and the host Blackman coach called a timeout with 1.5 seconds on the clock.
As the teams went to their respective benches, while the home crowd was going wild and their pep band was blaring, a referee supposedly “heard” a Bear player from more than 30 feet away say something derogatory to an official standing right beside the player and whistled a technical foul, essentially handing the victory and the state tournament berth that came with it to the Blaze.
I was sitting courtside right beside the sports reporter from the Murfreesboro paper and we couldn’t hear each other speak because the noise level in the gym was so loud.
While the unbelievable whistle ended the season for the stunned Bradley team, coaches and fans, that referee went on to call in the TSSAA state tournament the following week, including a championship game.
After having bounced back from the disappointment of not making the state field last season, both Bradley teams rebounded to be in the same situation this year.
While the Bears were overmatched by a strong state-ranked Siegel team in their sectional game, the third-ranked Bearettes were able to punch their ticket to the state tournament in convincing fashion over No. 4 Blackman for their first substate victory in 20 years.
However, the celebration was muted by a pair of uncharacteristic technical foul calls against 6-foot-2 junior post Rebecca Reuter, who had never been “T’d up” in her entire playing career. Both were called by the same referee, a veteran official who later revealed that he had only called two other technical fouls all year before the pair on Reuter less than 4 1/2 minutes apart.
Both “Ts” came on rebounding plays, where Reuter was whistled for a regular foul. She did nothing malicious, didn’t throw a punch or use profanity in either situation. Although her second technical came after her fifth foul in the contest, by rule she had to sit out a two-game suspension.
Without her double-double average (11 points, 10 rebounds) out of the lineup and her replacement being seven inches shorter, Bradley had to face nationally-ranked and defending state runner up Science Hill in Wednesday’s opening round.
The Lady Hilltoppers had little trouble in giving the devastated Bearettes a quick exit before going on to face top-ranked and unbeaten Riverdale in the state title game for the second straight year.
While there’s no way of knowing whether Reuter being on the court would have changed the outcome, it would have been nice to see both the second- and third-ranked teams in the state at full strength when they squared off.
No matter how long they’ve been calling, officials normally discuss the games beforehand. Once they get into the postseason tournaments, they usually remind each other of the extra intensity and emotion involved in the contests as so much is riding on the outcomes.
The last thing a good official wants to do is to determine an outcome or negatively effect a team’s chances at a state championship.
However, sometimes in the heat of the moment and pressure of the situations, some officials become “eagle eyed,” and start looking for things to call.
If I could pass a word of wisdom to these men in stripes whose calls have had such devastating effects on young women and men who have worked so hard to get to the brink of an opportunity of a lifetime, it would be “don’t call what you ‘think’ you see, call what you ‘know’ happened” and don’t be afraid to back off a call if you’re not sure.
On both of Reuter’s technicals, the official had a chance to not call the “T” after conferring with one of his partners, who was making the regular foul calls.
The result of the questionable calls not only cost Bradley a legitimate shot at a state title, but will now be felt next winter as well as Reuter has to sit out the first game of her senior season.