Ben Goodwin wasn’t yet a teenager when he officiated his first college volleyball match, and he vividly remembers the teams as well as one particular heckler.
“Gonzaga against Eastern Washington, it was a great five-set match,” said Goodwin, now 27.
Goodwin remembers making a call that went against Gonzaga, which prompted a college student to rise up and shout at him, “Go back to middle school.”
The first referee turned around, Goodwin said, and addressed the student: “He is in middle school.”
For officials, criticism – warranted and unwarranted – comes with the job, and in the 15 years since then Goodwin has dealt with his share of it at various levels of competition.
On Saturday, he reached a new professional pinnacle, when he served as a line judge at the NCAA Division I volleyball championship match in Omaha, Nebraska, when Kentucky defeated Texas. He was one of two Spokane-based officials – Margie Ray was the other – who worked at the tournament, furthering the reputation of Spokane as a city rich with officiating talent.
“The structure (in Spokane) is just good,” said Ray, who has lived and refereed in Spokane since 1998 and helped train referees for 10 of those years through the Spokane Area Volleyball Referees Association, many of whom have worked at the national level.
“They teach the basics well,” Ray said, “and the more practice you have at the basics, the pressure performances get better and better.”
This year at the NCAA Tournament, Goodwin officiated eight matches and Ray another four. Ray was considered a COVID alternate for the championship match, which she has officiated six times before.
This year she officiated the regional final between Florida and Wisconsin, and “no one will know we did,” Ray said, noting that the best match for her is one where both teams retain their complement of challenges.
“It’s when you do something wrong, and how you respond, that they remember you,” she said.
For Goodwin, officiating the NCAA Tournament was just the latest opportunity in a career that has spanned more than half his lifetime. He started as a line judge at 11, and after that first college match, he continued to work at the area’s multiple colleges, often on the same crew as Dale Goodwin, his father who has also officiated in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think there’s a ton of officials that can all point to people who have really invested in them in their development and their learning,” Ben Goodwin said, “a lot of people willing to teach and mentor. That’s the thing more than anything that has allowed me as many opportunities as I’ve had.
“In my specific case, there were a bunch of people who were pretty brave allowing an 11-year-old kid to come out and do this. If one person would have thought, this isn’t the best idea, the last 16 years wouldn’t have happened.”
Barb Silvey, a retired teacher and along with Dale Goodwin a member of the SAVRA Hall of Fame, remembers when Ben Goodwin started training.
“It became pretty clear he was taking it very seriously,” Silvey said. “I’ll ref with him on my lines anywhere. … Even if you watch him at the national level, (the pressure) doesn’t seem to affect him.”
Ray also worked with Goodwin many times when he was younger, and he was good then, too, she said, because he had to be.
“He’s got good judgment,” Ray said. “When people are that young and don’t do well, they don’t stay.”
Goodwin said that when he was younger he made sure to do everything just a little bit better than expected, a little more professional, all the way down to ensuring his pants were a little better pressed than people might expect from an official.
Goodwin wanted to make sure people knew he was working hard at doing a good job, a principle he has held throughout his time as a referee.
“My desire every time I go out is to be the very best I can be for the players that are playing that day,” Goodwin said. “That’s really good motivation to keep up my skills and my knowledge.”
Goodwin didn’t officiate as much during high school, when he played football at Ferris and quarterbacked the football team to a state championship in 2010. After that he attended and then graduated from Gonzaga, where he now works in the Office of Mission and Ministry.
For him, officiating continues to be a good side gig, he said: They are considered independent contractors and can build their schedule around their day jobs.
Ray’s day job is as a faculty member in the mathematics department at Spokane Community College. In a given season she said she officiates 45 to 60 matches across various conferences, such as the Big Sky, Pac-12 and West Coast Conference, as well as the Western Athletic Conference, Mountain West and Big 12.
With so many college volleyball programs in the area, Silvey said, there is ample opportunity for referees to work and to improve, and SAVRA is intentional about continually training its members. They often recruit former players and promote officiating as a way to make a little extra income and to stay involved in the game.
Yet, Goodwin said finding enough referees is a test for the association.
“I think it’s pretty intimidating to people,” he said. “… So many people wanna point out the things you do wrong or say wrong. We have high-speed cameras people can use to prove that you’re wrong, and that’s a pretty humbling experience.”
Still, for Ray and for Goodwin, the goal is the same every time out there, no matter the level of competition: To do their jobs well, slip into the background and let the focus remain on the athletes.
“All the high school (matches), I pretended they were the Final Four,” Ray said. “That way when I got to the Final Four, I knew I could do it.”
And, she said, the standard she held herself to was no different.
“Two little towns playing their hearts out,” Ray said, “they want every point.”
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