A Day in the Life of an Officiating Crew: Longstanding team of referees completes another regular season together
Grand Rapids - It's still well over an hour to tip-off but after pulling into the school's parking lot, Bob Wojcik snatches his large black travel bag from the trunk of his car while at the same time begins the process in his mind of how he expects the evening to play out.
Once inside the Wellspring Preparatory gymnasium, Wojcik's routine is robotic. He immediately seeks the school's athletic director and keeps an eye on the unfolding junior varsity basketball game. While waiting for his partners Todd VandenAkker and Conroy Zuiderveen to arrive, Wojcik is shown to the room where Grand Rapids' most veteran trio of officials will begin the preparation for the boys basketball game between the host Wolves and Ravenna.
After 39 years and hundreds of games involving an all-too-familiar process, the last thing you'd expect from Wojcik is his attempt to contain his nerves. But that's what he's fought as the trio began changing into their officiating clothes.
"You still get butterflies," Wojcik shrugged. "Doesn't matter how many times you've done this."
Wojcik, VandenAkker, and Zuiderveen are no strangers to officiating as they have a combined 117 years’ worth of experience, including the last 12 years as a crew. No trio of area basketball officials has worked together longer.
How they've managed not only to maintain their love of officiating but remain one of Grand Rapids' top crews is no mystery, so say the trio as they prepare for their final regular season game together for the 2017-18 season. As per Michigan High School Athletic Association guidelines, they will be split up for next week's boy's districts.
They've thrived for 12 years together because each brings a different strength to their profession. Wojcik, for instance, a former tool and dye worker for 34 years, is the acknowledged communicator. Zuiderveen, who works in the Kent County court system is the "rules initiator." And VandenAkker is a counselor at Grand Rapids Northview High who is fine with staying within himself as an official.
"Balance," Zuiderveen said. "That's what makes us a crew."
On this particular night, they granted a reporter access to a select group which has probably worked 600 games together.
Immediately one can’t help but notice how the crew conducts business as they gathered to change clothes in a small classroom near the gymnasium. While both teams are warming up on the court, Wojcik, Zuiderveen, and VandenAkker launched into a wide-ranging discussion among themselves on the pros and cons of their recent games together as well as problems they've heard that other officials have discovered as the boy's and girl's seasons morph into the same season.
In the brief pregame time allowed to the crew, the officials spent 20 minutes discussing everything from the best ways to "clean up the post" to body bumps, the most efficient method of "protecting the dribbler" and what to expect from coaches, most of whom have their own individual opinions on how basketball games should be officiated. The crew agreed that at least part of what separates the top crews from the mediocre ones is communication.
While some may believe that communication between a crew that's worked hundreds of games together should be automatic, VandenAkker, the only one of the three who doesn't work a second MHSAA sport, offered a different perspective.
"You never want to become too slack with each other," he said.
After the diligent pregame prep work, the three proceeded the court to meet the teams' coaches and captains. Wojcik, a firm believer in first impressions, said it's the first opportunity to show players that officials are human. Typically, one of his first orders of business is to make loose contact with the student section's "ring leader" to ensure the kids know the officials' behavior expectations.
"You joke with them, get them to laugh," Wojcik said. "You try to get them to realize we're just people."
Once the preliminaries were done, the game started and quickly developed into a tight affair, the kind of quality game the officials say they prefer. Neither coach seemed too inclined to "work" the officials. One of the coaches did call Wojcik over for a brief chat, then sent him away with a pat on the shoulder. There were a couple oohs and aahs from the crowd on one or two foul calls, but the game progressed smoothly. Ravenna led 42-38 at halftime.
On their way to the classroom at halftime the crew grabbed a handful of candy bars and refreshments and then wasted no time in going over the first half. During this seven-minute break, the officials took note of the 17 fouls they called, how fairly one of the team's big men boxed out opponents, potential repeated lane violations by a certain player and how teams set their picks.
The bottom line was that all three officials agreed it had been a competitive game that was headed to a tight ending, the kind of photo finish which forces officials to stay alert.
The game remained close until midway through the fourth quarter when a 12-4 run by Ravenna all but clinched what became a 63-56 win.
The officials had no more entered their classroom after the final horn when they discussed what had been handled well and what could have gone smoother. They talked about the final foul count, how the coaches were handled, a controversial late traveling call and Wojcik's admission he might have missed a 10-second call.
Wojcik related a quick conversation he had with one of the coaches. In the coach's opinion, Wojcik might have missed a specific foul late in the final quarter. Wojcik was upfront with his partners in what he told the coach.
"I'm not dogging my partners, but I (told the coach) I can't be in every corner," Wojcik said.
The officials loitered to answer a few more questions, one of which was an inquiry whether referees truly prefer working a close game over simply pocketing a $70 check that included few tough calls, a lopsided outcome, and a quick no frills exit.
"I think when it's close and every call becomes important there is a heightened awareness," Zuiderveen said. "And I think we're better when every call is crucial."
Finally, nearly four hours after the officials walked into the gym, they scattered to their cars. All will work games in the state tournament, but this was the final time they would be together for this season. They quickly compared the merits of their upcoming assignments and were gone into an unseasonably warm late winter night.
Before leaving, VandenAkker was prodded with a final question whether or not fans appreciate what officials try to accomplish with their efforts. Do fans truly believe that all officials are partisan against their teams or do they recognize their underrated contributions to high school athletics?
VandenAkker paused to reflect, then offered an honest answer.
"I don't think they realize how important all this is to us," he said. "We want to get it right and do well. That's really all that we're trying to do."
On this particular night, at least, it was.