No high school football team from the Baton Rouge metro area will compete in the Louisiana High School Athletic Association-State Farm Prep Classic this weekend.
That fact puts a different kind of team in the spotlight for Friday’s Class 1A title game set for 3 p.m. at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
“This is the top of the ladder,” Eric Dunbar said. “This is where any official worth his salt is trying to get. We’ve accomplished something.”
Dunbar is part of a Baton Rouge-based officiating crew that will make the calls for Friday’s first classic game between West St. John (12-2) and Ouachita Christian (14-0).
The officials from the Baton Rouge Area Football Officials Association have been working together since the last week of the regular season to prepare for their title-game appearance.
“There are 10 associations in the state, and with five championship games a year, we know we get a game every other year,” Marlon Harrison said. “This is a good group. I like the way we’ve jelled together.”
Harrison is the referee or “white hat” and leads the group. The crew has seven field officials and two alternates who will work the game and 25-second clocks.
Two years ago, Harrison, a local attorney, was part of a local crew that called the Class 5A final between West Monroe and Rummel.
All crew members were evaluated during the year and learned they had drawn high school’s equivalent of a BCS bowl game or the Super Bowl during the ninth week of the regular season.
The other crew members are side judge Jeremy White, line judge Philip J. Mason, umpire Dunbar, linesman Donald Heltz, back judge Jay Mayfield and field judge Kelly McGovern. Thomas LaCroix (game clock) and Louis Metevia (25-second clock) are the alternates who will operate the clocks.
Preparation began during Week 10 of the regular season with the Mandeville at Covington game. Next came four playoff games: Cecilia at Teurlings Catholic, Lutcher at Washington-Marion, Marksville at Jennings and Lutcher at Karr.
If Louisiana football is a melting pot that brings people together, this crew, with its experience and diverse occupations, is like a spicy bowl of gumbo.
McGovern has been an official for 16 years, while Harrison, who is president of the local officials’ group, has officiated 14. The others have been involved for eight to 13 years.
All nine officials said they consider their assignment a point of pride.
“There are three levels of football, and I always say we call the best one,” said LaCroix, who works in outside sales. “High school is the purest form of the sport.
“In college you have a lot of great players, and in the NFL it’s for money. High school is 11 guys against 11 guys.”
Representing a local association, made up of more than 180 officials is also meaningful, said White, who works as a publisher.
“This is a big deal,” White said. “We have guys in our association who have been calling twice as long as I have and they’ve never gone. I consider it to be an honor.”
Some of the officials are former players. Dunbar, the brother of former LSU player Karl Dunbar, played at Southern. He works as a warehouseman.
Metevia played for SU. He also played for Southern Lab in the Superdome twice, helping the Kittens win a Class 1A title in 1986. He works as a librarian at the Southern Systems library.
At 29, Mason, a former Port Allen High School player, is the youngest. He started officiating as a college student and is now an accountant.
“When I was in school, it was a way to pick up extra money,” Mason said. “But as time went on, I got more interested in officiating and worked to learn more about it.”
McGovern, a safety specialist, didn’t start officiating until he was in his 30s. He used to drive from Baton Rouge to watch his uncle, retired Karr coach Don Wattigny, in the playoffs.
Heltz, an X-ray technologist, played in an adult baseball league but sought a new athletic release.
“Father time was catching up with my baseball ability,” Heltz said. “I wanted to umpire, but I didn’t get off of work early enough to get to games during the week. Football fit my schedule.”
As the back judge, Mayfield is the “last line of defense.” A claims adjuster, he got into officiating with two co-workers and worked his way through the ranks.
The group has shared some laughs and individual stories. McGovern recalled officiating current LSU star Rueben Randle’s final game for Bastrop.
And they’ve handled some popular misconceptions about high school rules, which are different from college and the NFL.
For example, in the NFL a quarterback can throw the ball away if he is outside the tackle box. On the high school level, it’s intentional grounding regardless of where it’s thrown.
“I tell coaches I don’t want to hear about a tackle box unless we’re going fishing,” White said.
Once a player breaks the plane of the line of scrimmage, he is called for encroachment. Players on other levels can move back behind the line without having a penalty called.
Also, a personal foul or unsportsmanlike conduct penalty is not an automatic first down on the high school level.
On Friday, the officials’ roles will be scripted from the time they get to the Superdome around noon. They’ll discuss all the possible scenarios and rules before taking the field.
“You like to think somebody notices what you do,” Mayfield said. “Getting this chance means somebody has. This is special.”