What are the toughest calls for Illinois high school football refs to get right?

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
A Harlem player is apparently held without a penalty being called during a run by Crystal Lake Prairie Ridge quarterback Ty Vasey, who rushed for 481 yards in Saturday's playoff victory.

Byron’s 56-21 second-round playoff win over Seneca couldn’t have gone smoother. Not a single penalty was called on Byron’s defending Class 3A state champs and only one 5-yard penalty on Seneca.

“Refs in our area do a tremendous job of letting kids decide the outcomes of games,” Forreston coach Keynon Janicke said. “And that’s for all sports, not just football.”

But that doesn’t mean everyone is always happy.

Janicke prefaced his statement praising local refs by saying “other than the really blatant and obvious stuff.” And while almost every penalty will elicit a complaint from someone, others are often unhappy when something is not called. Seneca assistant coaches, for instance, complained early in that Byron game that their players were getting blocked in the back.

“Refs have one of the toughest jobs with constant criticism and not a lot of credit,” Janicke said.

It’s almost impossible for a football ref to please everyone. Still, the Register Star reached out to area coaches and asked which penalties are the hardest ones for refs to get correct and have the most impact on a game. Here is what they said:

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“The only ones I don't like are holding penalties that don't really affect the play,” Eastland/Pearl City coach Jared McNutt said.

One such penalty took away a miracle comeback win for Freeport against Belvidere North four years ago. But video of Freeport’s would-be winning TD in that 10-6 loss showed a blatant hold away from the ball.

No high school penalty gets debated as much as holding.

“The toughest calls for officials to make are offensive holding calls, whether it be receivers or offensive linemen,” said Jeff Luedke, who led Rockford Lutheran to its first playoff win in six years in his first year as coach this season. “Where the offensive man’s hands are placed on the defensive player are sometimes so hard to see and is very difficult for the officials to tell if it was a good block or holding.

“Holding is a drive killer.”

But some drives deserve to be killed because of grabbing and holding. Crystal Lake Prairie Ridge ran for a Class 6A-record 612 yards in last week’s playoff win over Harlem. That included 481 yards and eight touchdowns by quarterback Tyler Vasey. Prairie Ridge was not called for holding a single time, even though Harlem has photos that seem to show several blatant holds.

“This lack of consistency is unbelievable,” Harlem coach Bob Moynihan said.

A penalty flag is seen on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, at Harlem High School in Machesney Park.

False starts

“A false start is not called enough,” East coach Gary Griffin said. “Guys have coached leaning and getting that head start very well over the years. Leaning or moving towards the line while in motion was something I saw just about every week, and it’s not called often.”

That was also one of the biggest issues for Janicke, who has coached Forreston into the Class 1A state semifinals.

“The only grip I have as a defensive coach is offensive players not being set and illegal formations, because it can have a drastic effect on our reads,” Janicke said.

Dangerous hits

“In the last few weeks of this season, we have had an unfortunate time with blind-side hits,” Janicke said. “In our first-round game against (Peru) St. Bede, we lost three kids with concussions they suffered when the game was out of hand. I don’t have all of the answers or solutions, but the safety of our kids was in serious question.”

The other side of making those calls is a player would be ejected from that game and also suspended for the following game. That may make refs hesitate. In maybe the most notable case in NIC-10 history, Belvidere’s Will Morris did not play in the 2016 season finale — which the Bucs lost to miss the playoffs — because he was ejected in the final seconds of a blowout win at Freeport. He caught a league-record 82 passes that year and Belvidere coaches insisted he did nothing wrong.

“We all film our games,” said Mike Lalor, who has coached Stillman Valley to five state titles. “It might be a good idea to review the play and make sure it's truly worthy of ejections and further punishment. In pro and college they have all time they need to review, High school guys are asked to make a split-second decision with no further looks that can really change the course of a game — or a season — for a team.”

Pass interference downfield

Recent local state championship teams Byron, Lena-Winslow and Byron stick mostly to the ground, but more and more local teams are throwing the ball. Seven NIC-10 teams passed for at least 10 touchdowns this year, smashing the old mark of four.

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“That puts a great deal of stress on the back judge,” Lalor said, noting that high school games have only five officials. “In high school, you have just one person back there. In pro and college, with at least seven-man crews, you have two and three. The game has evolved in high school from most teams running the ball to a fair amount of throwing it quite a bit and that one man has 53 yards side-to-side to judge. They do a great job, but it is very difficult.

“And with the (officials) shortage the way it is now, I don’t see any way you can change this and ease their load.”

Guilford coach Tony Capriotti said that is the real complaint: Not enough refs means not enough good refs.

“If you asked every coach, there would be several different views of what is or isn’t a penalty on every play,” Capriotti said. “The biggest issue isn’t inconsistency but rather the extreme referee shortage. Crews are doing two games a night and four games over two nights. That’s a lot of work, my man.

“The shortage could create an environment where ratings for officials crews means less and less simply because of supply and demand.”

Matt Trowbridge has covered sports for the Rockford Register Star for over 30 years, after previous stints in North Dakota, Delaware, Vermont and three years covering the Hawkeyes in Iowa City. Contact him at: or 815-987-1383.