The Ref

  • By Mike Cane / Herald Writer
  • Saturday, July 10, 2004 9:00pm
  • Sports

The real game begins long before the clock starts ticking.

They are watching you, always watching.

Are you tired? Do your shoulders slump? Do your eyes say you’d rather be somewhere else? Do you appear anything less than supremely confident?

Be sure you are guilty of none of the above, because they are sure to notice and take advantage.

Krystin Lambalot understands this. As an experienced soccer referee, the 19-year-old Bothell resident knows the game, and she knows The Game. Players scavenge the referee ranks for a psychological edge. Who is the weak link? Who will cave in and reverse the crucial call that could determine victory?

Ah, but The Game works both ways. Lambalot can tell which players brought their best effort, and which ones will pack it in, whine and loaf. And that’s just based on how they lace up their shoes before warm-ups.

Still, how savvy can a 19-year-old be? Picking a major is hard enough for soon-to-be sophomores like Lambalot, a student at Western Washington University. Can she really handle the pressure?

Very simply, yes. Just check Lambalot’s resume. After her sophomore year at Bothell High School, Lambalot was invited to referee the State Cup, Washington’s championship tournament for top club teams.

In 2002 at age 17 she moved on to refereeing Region IV championship games, where teams from 14 western states face off. She’s done that and worked a dizzying number of college and professional games every year since.

Also in 2002, Lambalot officiated the first game of any kind – a Seattle Sounders women’s match – at 72,000-seat Seahawks Stadium.

“It was probably the best experience I’ve ever had,” Lambalot said. “Just being in a brand new stadium … It was great.”

Lambalot’s newest opportunity clearly dwarfs all that. Based on her performance at several professional refereeing clinics – and her enormous potential – Lambalot was recently selected to referee the United States Women’s National Team game against Australia July 21 in Blaine, Minn. The game, one of the three pre-Olympic exhibitions for the likes of U.S. stars Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Richland’s Hope Solo, is scheduled for national telecast on ESPN, a first for Lambalot.

“I still have the same nerves. I think maybe a little bit more,” Lambalot said, referring to the butterflies she battled during the Seahawks Stadium opening that are stirring again.

The game is essentially a weed-out test for aspiring refs, Lambalot said.

“They kind of give you these opportunities and see who screws up. I don’t think you can throw anybody deeper in the ocean than they threw us now.”

As the fourth official (two others will be more than 10 years older than Lambalot), Lambalot will be mainly responsible for doing substitutions and handling off-field issues. Lambalot’s family can’t make the trip to Minnesota, but Pamela Davis, Lambalot’s best friend and a junior-to-be at the University of Washington, was also picked to help officiate the game. The two met a few years ago through refereeing.

Those who have seen Lambalot in action have no doubt that she’ll float at the sink-or-swim event.

Sandy Hunt is to the female soccer referee as Jackie Robinson is to the African-American baseball player. The 45-year-old Hunt, who lives in Bellingham, started refereeing in 1987. Twelve years later she officiated at the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Hunt also refereed at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and later at the 2003 Women’s World Cup.

Hunt is now one of 25 referee instructors worldwide for FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. The only woman on U.S. Soccer’s 10-member referee committee, Hunt first saw Lambalot about five years ago. She describes the youngster as well-rounded, gracious, very poised and teachable. Lambalot excels as a soccer referee, but her talent is limitless, Hunt said.

“Someone like Krystin will be successful at whatever she chooses to do.”

In the refereeing business, as Hunt said, you are judged on your judgment. Lambalot thrives because she’s resilient, able to shrug off a tough game, learn from it and move on.

Jonathan Sims works with Lambalot at Smackdown, a new youth soccer refereeing program for kids ages 11 to 18 in Bellingham. Sims, the Vice President of Youth for the Whatcom County Soccer Referees Association, said Lambalot is “one of the up and coming referees in the state. She is a solid referee with a wonderful personality.”

Jim Hartwell of Lake Stevens, has been refereeing soccer matches in King and Snohomish Counties for more than 40 years. Lambalot has the potential to officiate for Major League Soccer someday, Hartwell predicted.

“She’s one of the best young refs out there,” the 66-year-old Hartwell said. “She’s so smart. She thinks fast on her feet.”

“Us old guys,” Hartwell added, “we gotta turn it over to these kids.”

With Lambalot, the game seems to be in extremely capable hands.

As an athlete, Lambalot played competitive soccer from sixth grade through high school. It was far from love at first kick.

“I actually didn’t like it at first,” she said. “I struggled a lot. I didn’t pick it up very quickly.”

She worked hard and gradually caught on, playing for and traveling with select teams. Now Lambalot plays intramural soccer at WWU.

But her love is officiating.

“Refereeing has given me a lot of confidence,” said Lambalot, the 2002 Region IV Young Female Referee of the Year. “I’ve always been kind of a shy person.”

Don’t reveal that last part to any opportunistic players. As Lambalot knows, they’re always watching.

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