Unlike the players in the games they work, it’s usually a good omen for the umpires when nobody notices them.
That was the case for two Columbus residents June 14 at the IHSAA Softball State Finals at Ben Davis High School. Jerry Cox called Leo’s win against Gibson Southern in the Class 3A game, and then Larry Fisher worked Bloomington South’s victory against Hamilton Southeastern in the 4A championship.
Both managed to avoid controversy.
“When you’re officiating, you have an awful lot of critics,” Cox said. “You’re never going to make everybody happy. We were fortunate enough to have a pretty uneventful game.”
Cox, 58, and Fisher, 60, were working their first state finals. Each had umpired two softball semistates as well as multiple regionals.
“It was real exciting,” Fisher said. “I’ve been working softball for about 21 years, and I finally made it to the state finals. It’s an experience, and I’d like to go back again.”
“It was a surreal experience,” said Cox, who also has officiated for more than 20 years. “It was a long road to get there. It’s kind of humbling to be chosen as one of the top 12 eligible officials.”
Three umpires were used for each of the four championship games. Umpires can work a state finals only once every four years.
The IHSAA selects eligible umpires based on a variety of factors, including votes from coaches, the number of years an umpire has worked, test scores, meeting attendance and points from working sectional, regional and semistate games.
“We’re not chosen by our peers,” Cox said. “We’re chosen by the people we actually work for.”
Cox and Fisher learned of their selections the day after the semistate.
“Larry is a great guy and a good friend, and it was nice to get to work with him,” Cox said. “It’s kind of a fluke to have two people from the same community to be selected. We have a pretty good corps of officials here in this area.”
Kevin Henney of Columbus has umpired two softball state finals. Henney works with Cox in softball, volleyball and boys and girls basketball
“I can’t tell you the number of nights I’ve came home from a ballgame with my partner, Kevin, with one of the three rule books out, wondering how we could have done something better,” Cox said. “We check our egos at the locker room door.”
Fisher also referees football and basketball. He has worked a boys and girls regional in basketball and a second-round sectional game in football.
Both Cox and Fisher were at Ben Davis for all four games of the state finals.
“They had a nice room for us,” Fisher said. “They had food set up for us and drinks. Anything we basically wanted, we got.”
Cox umpired first base in the 3A game. Fisher worked at third base in the 4A contest.
“There were butterflies,” Cox said. “I always said when they play the national anthem, if I don’t get a tingle, I would quit.”
“It was a lot of excitement and anticipation,” Fisher said. “Then, once the game starts, you get into the flow of the game, and it’s just another game.”
Neither Fisher, who attended Columbus High School, nor Cox, who grew up in Tipton, were standout athletes in high school, although Fisher played basketball in middle school and slow-pitch softball as an adult.
“I wasn’t an exceptional high school athlete,” Cox said. “Officiating has been a rebirth of my chance to be involved with athletics. One does not have to be an excellent athlete in order to be an official.
“You have to have some skills, but you also have to have some good fortune,” he said. “You probably aren’t going to get there without some luck, but you’re probably not going to get there on pure luck, either. I busted my butt to get there. I worked really hard for a long time to make myself a competent official.”
Cox and Fisher hope to stick around at least another four years so they can have a chance to umpire another Softball State Finals.
“A lot of it will depend on how my body holds out,” Cox said. “It depends on how long the Good Lord allows me. I don’t want to stay too long. I don’t want to hear ‘He used to be a good official.’ When that day comes, I hope I know.”
Fisher just had both of his knees replaced in the winter.
“I’m planning on sticking with it as long as I’m giving kids a fair game and can keep up with the game,” Fisher said.
All four state finals games were televised live on Fox Sports Indiana, and each of the games were replayed last week.
“You want to make sure that you look professional and don’t do anything silly and give the kids the best game you can,” Cox said. “I’ve been officiating long enough to know you’re only as good as your last call. You want to stay focused and make sure every call is right.
“You’re not going to be flawless,” he said. “Every year, you have calls during the year that are going to be wrong. You just hope it’s not on TV in the state championship game.”