It’s 4:40 p.m. on a Saturday and Justin Walsh has just arrived in Kingston. He’s refereeing tonight’s women’s basketball game between Queen’s and Laurentian — a job that extends far beyond the four quarters of play.
A high school teacher in Belleville, Walsh left home two hours before the 6 p.m. tip-off; he’ll be lucky to get home before midnight. He’s the designated leader of tonight’s officiating crew, alongside Pascale Mapleston and Trevor Schriver.
All three officiate games throughout the OUA East, from Ottawa to Sudbury and everywhere in between.
“It’s a huge commitment,” said Schriver, who drove from Toronto for the game. “People don’t really see that human factor in what we do.”
Paired with new partners each weekend, the refs must become trusted teammates in under an hour and work cohesively once the game begins.
“It’s very much a partnership,” Schriver said. “If there’s one weak link out there, the whole crew goes to hell.”
The refs’ crash course in solidarity starts 40 minutes before the game, as they gather in a cramped change room in the bowels of the ARC.
Walsh consults a double-sided, laminated checklist, leading a discussion on every conceivable pre-game topic. He riffs on the importance of tempo (“I find the game is so much better if there’s flow,” Walsh said) and the playing style of Laurentian guard Sasha Polishchuk (“She thinks she can score every time she touches the ball”).
The conversation turns to Gaels head coach Dave Wilson, who’s regarded by the officials as outspoken but reasonable.
“I think Dave will question if [certain calls are] legit, and we have to be ready to give a legit answer — what we saw, and if we missed it, or whatever,” Walsh said.
Wilson’s counterpart is another story.
“Mike, on the other hand, can be downright rude.” Walsh is referring to Laurentian head coach Mike Clarke, who’s known for going, as Mapleston puts it, from “zero to 60 in five seconds.” Walsh and his crew will entertain Clarke’s concerns if they’re presented respectfully, but know where to draw the line.
“We’re going to try to limit the amount of yelling across the floor at us,” Walsh said. “If he’s a pussycat all game, great. If he needs to be addressed, then we’ll address it.”
Out on the court, it’s easy to spot Clarke lumbering down the Laurentian sideline, pacing back and forth and gesticulating wildly. Walsh is composed on the floor, never losing his cool and moving quickly to deter any potential conflict. The in-game interactions between coach and referee are nothing less than theatrical, and Clarke and Walsh are the perfect foils.
Clarke becomes aggravated as a series of early calls go against Laurentian. He claps his hands whenever a referee trots by and gazes upward in exasperation after a Gaels’ three-pointer. Walsh and his crew have afforded Clarke a long leash to start the game, but they’ll have to rein him in as his protests become more animated.
Walsh formally warns Clarke with three minutes left in the first half, but the ruling’s mostly ineffective. Clarke spins obnoxiously after a foul call, unveiling a sarcastic grin. The game has lost order as halftime arrives, and the refs must assert control.
Clarke’s luck finally runs out in the third quarter. After the Laurentian coach explodes from his chair in amazement at a no-call, Walsh hits him with a technical foul. There’s a rousing ovation as Clarke slinks back to the sideline.
The in-game theatre subsides as the score remains close; every possession takes on added significance, as the Gaels withstand a late charge to win by five.
The officials hustle down to the change room after the final horn for a debrief with OUA East referee supervisor Rob Ferguson, who’s been watching from the stands and evaluating their performance.
The supervisor enters the room to a warm reception, congratulating Walsh on stabilizing the game in the second half.
“Shows you the power of a technical foul. That game was going south because [Clarke] was screaming,” Ferguson said. “The technical foul’s given and you’re allowed to officiate the rest of the game.”
Ferguson reviews the entire game with the officials, checking his notepad to discuss individual plays and suggest minor improvements. His directives are sincere: he genuinely wants each of his referees to excel. Walsh and his crew will keep the instructions in mind when they see the game film the next day.
“This’ll be a good game to watch over — a lot of little stuff happened,” Mapleston said.
The referees head upstairs to watch the second half of the Gaels’ men’s game. Alongside each other once again, their kinship is clear. They’re a team, if only for the day.
“We make a few dollars [reffing], but you’ll spend it all in the pursuit of the camaraderie most of the time,” Schriver said. “It’s going through the stress of a difficult situation together that creates a bond.
“There’s really no better feeling than that — when you’ve been to war and you come back from it is something special.”