When it comes to high school officiating, it would appear there is no such thing as an easy call, although the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) has found one in its Officials Conference.
The annual event, held in late July in East Peoria, Illinois, will unfold for the 19th consecutive year this summer, with the Embassy Suites hotel and East Peoria High School sharing the hosting duties.
“First and foremost, this is a chance to celebrate officials and officiating,” said IHSA Assistant Executive Director Sam Knox, who oversees the IHSA Officials Department and is a 20-plus year baseball and basketball official. “So much of what we see and hear about officiating is in a negative light, but this conference and weekend are a chance to embrace the vocation.”
The IHSA Officials Conference was born out of discussions between then-IHSA Assistant Executive Director Dave Gannaway, who held Knox’s role from 1999 to 2010, and members of the IHSA’s Officials Committee. Those ideas led to the formation of a separate steering committee for the conference, which is charged with finding an annual theme, vetting mini-session topics and using attendee feedback to adjust the event.
“We have a great committee that works hard at keeping the conference successful each year,” said Sal Vasta, an Elmhurst resident who officiates basketball, football and softball and has served on the conference committee since 1999. “The continuing education of officials is the key to our success. We try to keep all of our topics updated and fresh each year. We are able to get the best available speakers with the expertise and experience to relate their message to all sports.”
The group found a winning formula for the conference nearly right away. The overall format of the conference has remained largely the same since the second conference in 2001, featuring a keynote speaker, several breakout mini-sessions and ample opportunity for officials to network and share experiences.
The conference commences on Friday as officials reconnect on the links with a kickoff golf outing. While many attendees are on the course, the IHSA and its clinicians hold a special session to train their new clinicians in all sports.
A general information session for new officials is held Friday night, which precedes the Opening Session. Knox presides over the welcome and recognition of all the state final officials from the recently concluded school term in the Opening Session, before handing off the reigns to a keynote speaker.
The keynote speakers have ranged from high-level pro and collegiate officials to motivational speakers, and even comedians throughout the years, with Final Four official and Edwardsville (Illinois) High School Superintendent Dr. Ed Hightower, and NBA official and Chicago native Marc Davis, and former Major League Baseball umpire Don Denkinger among some of the notable speakers.
“This conference is an event I look forward to every summer,” said Centralia (Illinois) native Robert Smith, a four-sport IHSA official. “It’s fun to reflect on the great experiences we have had on the field, court and diamond through the year as officials. The keynote speakers add a great element as well, as you realize that while they may work at a higher level, they are often dealing with many of the same scenarios as high school officials.”
Education becomes the focal point of the conference on Saturday morning and afternoon. Saturday opens with certified clinics in 11 IHSA sports, of which attendees earn credit toward their annual IHSA licensure requirements. The afternoon features mini-sessions in a variety of sports covering topics that range from specific rules in a sport (such as pass interference in football), tips on how to advance in IHSA postseason assignments, and general best practices like how to communicate with coaches.
Most sessions are taught by current IHSA officials, but a few sessions each year generally feature special guests to offer a different perspective, such as officials administration from other state associations, NFHS staff members or high-level high school officials from other states. Presenters are encouraged to incorporate video whenever possible, and all sessions end with a question-and-answer session so attendees can talk through past situations with their fellow officials.
“Attending this conference gave me the motivation to become an elite official,” said Bill Honeycutt, a wrestling official from Woodridge who has officiated IHSA wrestling since 1973. “There is no better place to learn, discover and build relationships. You only get out of it what you are willing to put in; however, coming away from it with even just one piece of new information makes it worthwhile.”
The conference closes in a similar fashion to how it started by providing recognition to some of Illinois’ finest and most dedicated officials. The culminating dinner banquet features Service Award recognition of IHSA officials who have worked as IHSA officials for 15, 25, 30, 40, 50 and 60 years. Those presentations are followed by the honoring of the IHSA’s Officials of the Year in each sport.
At a time when officials recruitment and retention are reaching a critical juncture, highlighted by the NFHS campaign at www.HighSchoolOfficials.com, IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson believes that a conference like the Illinois High School Association’s conference can help with keeping officials on board.
“We know that a significant majority of high school officials are not taking up the vocation for the money,” said Anderson, who oversaw the conference from 2011 to 2015. “They stay involved because they love high school sports and want to give back. With those motivations, it’s important for officials to be able to connect with and be a part of a community of people like them. For as much as we teach, learn and listen at the IHSA Officials Conference, its greatest impact may be in the friendship, camaraderie and bonds it creates.”
Matt Troha is assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association and a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.