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Old Mon Nov 14, 2011, 12:03pm
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Location: Menifee,CA
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Strife in NorCal

Preps Plus: Top refs form new group, are shut out of prep volleyball
By John Parker
Special to The Bee

Instead of worrying about winning a league championship or advancing deep into the upcoming playoffs, area high school volleyball coaches seem more concerned about another plight.


"This season (officiating is) as poor as it's been since I've been in Sacramento," said coach Marty Soyama of top-ranked El Camino. Soyama has coached in the area since 1998.

With playoffs beginning in fewer than two weeks, there is concern the Northern California Officials Association (NCOA) pool of 90 "varsity level" referees is not as experienced as in past years. Many are first-year officials, learning on the job and even being trained during matches.

Frustrated by how things were being run in the NCOA and disappointed by a lack of response to a call for change, many veteran officials left the NCOA in June to create the Volleyball Officials Association (VBOA).

But splintering from the NCOA backfired.

The Sac-Joaquin Section primarily uses NCOA volleyball officials, leaving some of the area's better and seasoned refs calling middle-school matches.

It's also ignited a bitter war of words between the two associations and a legal battle, with coaches and teams seemingly caught in the crossfire.

"I'm just disappointed about that we have good refs that aren't being used," said Dave Muscarella, coach of the defending Division II champion Rocklin Thunder, ranked No. 4 by The Bee. "It affects the kids and what they're doing. There has been a big difference."

Jorgensen Sports Service, the assignor for all section sports, takes into account referee ratings in doling out assignments, with more seasoned officials getting high-profile matches. However, NCOA's system this year has changed from the traditional five-tier to simply "varsity" and "sub-varsity" categories.

"A lot of these new officials aren't familiar with the essence of volleyball," said Jim Jorgensen, owner and operator of JSS. "(They're) more concerned with protocol like (a coach's) proximity to the court or if (a) bench jumps up than critical elements of the game."

The VBOA boasts 79 officials, nearly all with valued playing or coaching experience, and 45 of them being considered playoff-caliber.

"All we wanted was to have an association that only cares about high school volleyball," said Steve Harank, VBOA secretary and former NCOA group leader.

A day after the VBOA was accredited through the California Interscholastic Federation, Harank resigned as NCOA group leader after six years to become secretary of the new organization.

About a month later the NCOA sued Harank, his company, Hawkins Officiating Services, and the VBOA, claiming he illegally accessed an online list of officials working with NCOA and began recruiting them. Harank countered that sports officials in California are independent contractors.

The case was thrown out by a judge, according to a public records search.

NCOA executive board president Mike Miklaus said he was unaware of Harank and other officials' concerns and that they did not bring them to him at the time.

"They're trying to make something of this to get recognition as to what their issues are – of which I have no knowledge," Miklaus said.

In mid-August, the section determined JSS would assign NCOA officials, and if there were a shortage, VBOA would fill in the gaps.

To date, VBOA officials have only been required on a handful of occasions. Section commissioner Pete Saco, citing the section's bylaws, decreed only NCOA officials would be used for the playoffs.

"If you're gonna have splinter groups, that's fine," Saco said. "We can pick as an organization who we want to officiate. It's unfortunate that (NCOA and VBOA) can't get along, but that's not our issue."

Paris Kidd, one of the officials who moved to VBOA, is now primarily officiating middle school matches after working last season's CIF State Championships as a member of NCOA.

A former player and coach, she said a background in the sport is vital in understanding the nuances of officiating the sport.

"It is a sport that is delicate in the different rules and different calls that you have," Kidd said. "Many of them are judgment calls."

Soyama said he has witnessed NCOA trainers working with officials at high-caliber matches well into the season.

Dwayne Jackson, who took over as group leader for volleyball after Harank left, said this has been "a record season" for new officials.

Jackson is a seasoned referee with 16 years of experience, including multiple section and state championship matches. He oversees training new and existing officials.

"Unfortunately (because of the split), we started off a little behind the eight ball this season in training," Jackson said.

The NCOA is the training and accrediting body for basketball, wrestling, baseball, softball and volleyball officials. It has 135 volleyball officials, with 90 considered qualified to work playoffs.

Other sports have successfully broken away from NCOA and formed their own associations including soccer, water polo and football. The section uses two football organizations, one based in Sacramento, the other in Petaluma, because of the volume of games Friday nights.

Citing "a lack of responsiveness" from NCOA leadership, several volleyball officials and leaders within NCOA mulled breaking away as early as last summer, before Miklaus took the reins as president.

"Every time we tried to make volleyball a better sport, we were shot down," Harank said of NCOA at the time.

Jackson said those matters, mainly bookkeeping procedures, have since been resolved and a leadership change on the association's executive board persuaded him to stay with the group. He contends that ego on the part of Harank is the reason VBOA has dug in its heels and persisted.

Harank said he feels NCOA is forcing the issue because of a personal vendetta against him, and that VBOA has been "thrown under the bus."

Winners? None so far.

Whatever happened to everyone just getting along?
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