On The Field
Local women join high school football referee ranks
JESSICA PANAGOPOULOS grew up watching her brother’s football games. Although he went on to play golf later in life and now works as a golf pro, Panagopoulos has always had aspirations of staying with the game, except now she is no longer in the stands.
“The thing I am looking forward to the most is getting to watch every football game up close,” says Panagopoulos (above). “There’s no better seat than the one I have.”
A Wilmington resident, she is one of two women to join the local East Carolina Football Officials Association (ECFOA) for the first time in more than a decade. Panagopoulos’ dream is to one day serve as a referee for the NFL.
“I always wanted to be Jess the Ref,” she says. “Watching the NFL refs on TV and just knowing all the details about the game was just something that I think I will always take an interest in.”
This fall will be Panagopoulos’ first season as a referee for the local association, and she will be working junior varsity high school games as a line judge.
“My main job this season is getting down all the rules,” she says.
LAURA SHIVELY, (below right) a student working toward her master’s in physical education at University of North Carolina Wilmington, also joined the ECFOA.
Shively has always had a strong passion for sports and started as an intramural official her freshman year of college.
“I did it for five plus years and just really fell in love with officiating,” she says.
She also worked for UNCW’s Competitive Sports program and is entering her second year as an umpire for women’s softball.
Shively’s boss Zach Gilbert, assistant director for the Competitive Sports program, is a high school football official as well and encouraged Shively to try it because of her experience as a flag football ref. She says joining the local association will help her career as well.
“I’m going into recreation,” she says. “I’ll be overseeing a lot of officials, so this will help me use my experience to train them.”
Learning the rulebook and training to become a referee for the association is no small task.
“Just when you first get the rule book, it looks like it’s in a different language, and there is so much to remember,” Panagopoulos adds.
While she is out on the field line judging this football season, Panagopoulos will also be identifying the rules throughout play to ensure that she knows them all. She says that working on getting the game to slow down, getting through all of the pre-snap, and then making sure her mechanics are good are the keys to making this year a success.
When she joined the league, Panagopoulos expected there to be more women involved in the association.
“I think it’s great for us to have the ability to get involved in this sport that I know so many of us love,” she says. “Man or woman, we help shape young kids’ lives, so that’s just great having the ability to be a part of that.”
According to Panagopoulos, Johnnie Forte, one of the refs in the local association, got called up to the NFL along with many of the other refs who officiate college football. She believes that one day she, too, could receive this promotion.
Becoming a high school football referee requires a lot more training than intramurals, and Shively points out that reffing high school football is a world apart from flag football.
“There’s a lot more players on the field. The players are a lot more athletic than what we see because it’s a faster-paced game,” she says.
Starting in June, all association refs met at weekly clinics that were mini-training sessions addressing a new topic each sitting. ECFOA refs also had the opportunity to officiate two scrimmages before seeing real- time play this fall.
“My goal this year is just to get comfortable being out there and being comfortable seeing the tackle and knowing what to see,” Shively says. “All the guys in the association have been really supportive.”
She says that being one of the first women to join the local association in years wasn’t a factor in her decision to start officiating.
“The love of sports,” Shively says, “it doesn’t matter what gender you are, and it shouldn’t stop females from officiating or just being really interested in sports.”
To view more of photographer Mark Steelman's work, visit www.marksteelmanphoto.com.