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It’s a kick to be a zebra — or a canary

By on February 22, 2021 in Sports & Recreation with 0 Comments
Referee Ed Navarro works a game: “I’ve been at games where the young refs coming up in the ranks walk off the field crying…”

By Sebastian Moraga

Ever wanted to be a canary? How about a zebra? 

Well, a few years back, Ed Navarro of Wenatchee and Steve Simonson of Cashmere made the decision to become such creatures. 

Steve in 1980 and Ed about 10 years ago, added a striped black and white shirt — in Steve’s case and a yellow one for Ed — to their wardrobe on a semi-permanent basis. 

They became referees, with Ed reffing soccer games and Steve basketball games. 

Steve, a teacher in Cashmere, just thought it would be a cool part time job back then. He was 19 and had enrolled at Wenatchee Valley College, when a WVC coach who reffed on the side asked his team whether anyone might want to give the zebra shirt a try. Never did he think he would be at it after 40 years.

“I kind of fell in love with it,” Steve said, later adding, “I just went from one season to the next.”

The love of the game, coupled with the ability to help people and the chance to be part of a team, all drew Steve to keep trotting up and down the hardwood.

Ed got the reffing bug while coaching his children’s rec games and seeing that the refs were few and far between. 

“I could see the need for more referees,” Ed said. “Everywhere you went.” 

He liked getting exercise watching the sport he loved, and the paycheck — modest as it may be — did not hurt. He went from rec games to high school and college games all around the Northwest. 

In addition to reffing for college and high school, Steve and Ed have served as mentors to several refs. Steve serves on executive committee of the Washington Officials Association and counts among his onetime mentees Quincy’s Nate Harris, last seen calling some pretty big-time games at the NCAA Division 1 level in basketball.

Steve refs mostly boys’ games, with some girls’ games sprinkled in. There’s no difference in his approach to either game, he said.

“A block is a block, a foul is a foul and a travel is a travel,” he said. 

Ed’s experience has been a little different when reffing boys’ soccer and girls’ soccer. He’s a reffing instructor and has had to reiterate that boys and girls react different to being fouled.

“We tell our refs: Boys retaliate right away. Girls hold it in, and when you least expect it, boom, they strike.”

Furthermore, the Mexican-born Ed said, games between mostly Hispanic teams or between a mostly Hispanic team and a mostly Anglo team differ from a game between two teams of white kids. Games involving Hispanic kids tend to be prone to escalating rough play, while two teams of white kids tend to be more respectful.

Their experiences, may differ, their sports may differ but just like Steve, Ed has shared reffing duties with some familiar faces, namely, their sons. 

Both Luke Simonson and David Navarro have reffed alongside their dads. While David will likely continue the family tradition and travels to ref in tourneys with his dad, Luke and Steve have probably seen the last of each other inside a basketball court in matching shirts. Luke is a criminal justice major at CWU, but he’s more into hunting and fishing more than reffing, Steve said.

Refereeing, Steve said, is hard, and mistakes are part of the learning curve. The old saying about refs having to be perfect on Day One and then get better, is true, Steve said.

“When I’m on the court, I can’t be thinking about anything else,” he said. The good refs know to take the game one play at a time. It’s an emotional game for players and coaches, so it’s essential for refs to remain calm and work together, he said. 

“We are the third team out there, and a lot of times we gotta be better than the other two teams,” he said. 

Ed said it’s important to stay even-keeled and consistent, reminding oneself that it’s impossible to please everyone. While Steve does no Cashmere games (“Because I like working here,” he joked,) Ed still has to do games where his hometown team plays.

“It is harder to ref locally because people (in the stands) know you, ‘C’mon, Ed!’” said Ed, who works in Chelan for Chelan Fruit. “Then, of course, the out-of-town team thinks. ‘Well, they know the ref, that’s why they are getting those calls.’”

For Steve, who says he still gets butterflies prior to every game, key is key. Or rather Francis Scott Key is key.

“I love the National Anthem,” he said. “That dials me in, like ‘OK, I gotta do this reffing thing, and I’m going to do it the best I can.’” And when the crowd boos, it helps to remember “they are booing the (striped) shirt, not Steve Simonson,” he said.

Ed also admits to butterflies prior to games. In fact, he recommends them.

“I tell the younger refs, once you stop feeling that, you’re going to fail, because you’re overconfident. And that’s when things go downhill,” Ed said.

Both Ed and Steve agreed that reffing is hard, sometimes on the body and on the spirit, but almost always on the family calendar, with a lot of traveling involved. It helps a lot when the family is supportive, Ed said, while Steve confided that sometimes he took his family to games he reffed. Not having them there is what made him stop reffing college games.

“All the driving,” he said when asked about the culprit “And above all, all the driving alone.”

Reffing is hard, and getting harder, with 80 percent of potential lifers quitting before three years, and the average age of sports official skewing older rather than younger, Steve said. 

People are turning out to ref, but getting them to tough it out through the abuse hurled from parents and fans in the stands is what’s proving to be a challenge. 

Ed pointed to the verbal and sometimes physical abuse laid upon referees nowadays as one of the main reasons for the nationwide shortage of referees among high school and college sports.

“I’ve been at games where the young refs coming up in the ranks walk off the field crying because the coach yelled at them or the parents yelled at them. And this is during rec games,” Ed said.

Ed said that his progeny has experienced some of that, too. Coaches can get pretty pointed with their remarks, too, bringing up his relationship to David as the only reason the younger Navarro was reffing.

“You need a thick skin and not take things personal,” Ed said. Still, he looks forward to reffing some more, especially if David is following in his footsteps.

Turning 60 in February, Steve said he’s on a “year-to-year contract with myself.” Of course, going without sports for almost a year due to the pandemic has only sharpened his desire to wear a whistle again.

“I’m ready for this season, whenever it may be,” Steve said.

Sebastian Moraga is a freelance writer from Cashmere  who could  not play dead in a western, let             alone play ref.

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