Levi Rippy never intended to make a career out of refereeing. But with a referee assignor for a mother, dragging him from game to game every weekend, he was only nine years old when he first donned the whistle.
“It was more fun to hold the flag than to stand on the sidelines,” he jokes.
Now more than 20 years later, Rippy has risen among the highest levels of soccer refereeing in the United States, working US Youth Soccer National Championships, Division-I college games, and even MLS Reserve games. And he’s not alone — several Washington-based referees have, like the Evergreen State players they officiate, earned their way into the elite levels of their profession. Babocarr Jallo has worked as the reserve official at an MLS Cup final, while Jeff Hosking, Jeremy Hanson and Mike Rottersman have all worked MLS games. In addition, Josh Wilkens is one of the nation’s top college officials, serving as referee at the NCAA Division III Final Four earlier this year.
“We’re proud to have some of the top refs in the country working in our state,” says Washington Youth Soccer Referee Program Director Will Niccolls. “Their success, too, illustrates that there’s not just one path to the MLS. You might be a rec player with a passion for soccer, or a premier player coming to the end of your youth career, and there’s a path for continued engagement with the game at its highest level.”
After beginning his refereeing career just to stave off boredom, Rippy continued through college to earn some extra money on the side. After moving to Seattle in 2005 to pursue a Masters degree in architecture from UW, Rippy began to take his career more seriously, advancing through the grade levels before finally becoming a National referee last year.
Rippy has since worked games for the US Youth Soccer National Championships, USASA Amateur Nationals, PDL and more. He is a frequent sight on soccer fields throughout the Pac-12, WAC and WCC Conferences, and has worked a number of MLS Reserve games as well.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be in Seattle, which is such a great soccer community, with lots of great mentors who have helped me along the way,” he says. “It’s truly a unique family. I’ve traveled the nation refereeing, and been able to make friends and soccer family all across the country. It’s truly a blessing to have that.”
One game that stands out for Rippy in particular is a PDL game in 2012 featuring the Portland Timbers U23 team versus the Kitsap Pumas at Portland’s Jeld-Wen Field. Rippy walked into the game expecting the usual gathering of friends, family and die-hards in the stands, only to encounter a crowd of more than 8,000 screaming, cheering young soccer players — it was Youth Day at the stadium, and kids had been bussed in from throughout the area for the game.
“At the time, it was the largest crowd ever to watch a soccer game at that stadium,” Rippy recalls. “That was very exciting, to be in front of a crowd that size.”
Rippy says that the most challenging aspect of refereeing isn’t the big crowds, or even dealing with the players and coaches. It’s finding time for the hours and hours of research that he does before each and every game, on the facility, the coaches, the players and all aspects of the upcoming contest. Rippy studies statistics to learn ahead of time which players are the most skilled, and which have a higher rate of fouls. He calls fellow referees who have reffed the teams in the past to learn any important notes he should know, and even studies the angle on which the field is built, to determine if the sun or shadows might obscure his view from any points on the field.
“It’s important to be aware of these things, but also not to let them create a bias,” he says. “But if there’s a National Team Pool player, or another particularly skilled player in the game, that’s something I want to know, because I guarantee the players on the field know.”
The most important advice Rippy can give a young referee who’d like to one day join him and his fellow Evergreen State refs on the pitch at the highest levels of the game, is to ask questions.
“Never lose sight of the fun, and don’t put too much pressure on yourself,” he says. “There are times when you don’t know if you are right, but you have to make a decision. If you have questions later, seek out mentors and find the answers. If you keep with it, you’ll be able to get where you want to go.”
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