The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

April 7, 2014

A Chris Larick column: Garcia earned his stripes

By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon

— Phil Garcia has seen changes in basketball’s rules and changes in its style of play.

Most importantly for our purposes, he’s seen the changes of guard in Ashtabula County basketball.

When it comes time for the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation to make selections for its players of the year and its Hall of Fame, Garcia is the one whose opinion is most valued and most credible. In each case, he’s seen most of them play (or coach) and he’s done it with an impartial eye.

Garcia, who will be (finally, in my opinion) inducted into the ACBF’s Hall of Fame on Sunday at the Conneaut Human Resources Center, has stood just a few feet from so many of the players and coaches who are candidates for Player of the Year and Coach of the Year, as well as those players and coaches who have entered or will enter the Hall of Fame. And he’s done that for more than 40 years. He’s probably seen more outstanding county players than any other living person.

“I think I’ve seen a good portion of them,” Garcia said. “Coach and player-wise, I’ve seen a lot of them.”

He’s seen changes in the game, too. When he first started, back in 1973, jump balls were held to start each quarter. All field goals counted as two points. In fact, the 3-point shot has probably changed the game more than anything else, in his opinion.

“It’s opened up the game,” he said. “You see more of a fast-break offense than before.”

Changes in officiating are more subtle, he said. While he concedes that more contact is allowed than in the past, there’s not that much difference in the way he calls a game now and when he did it in the 1970s, he feels.

“You adjust to the game,” he said. “When the ball goes in the basket, it makes it easy. A foul is a foul. A violation is a violation.”

Any slight adjustments are brought about by directives from national or state organizations in a bulletin that each official receives — and is expected to study — each year. How much hand-checking is allowed is one aspect of officiating that could fluctuate year to year, for example.

“Zone defenses make it easier to call,” Garcia said.

He does admit that the game is faster now.

“It’s more uptempo,” he said.

Garcia, who will be inducted into the Ohio High School Athletic Association Officials Hall of Fame one from from today — the day after he enters the ACBF HOF — tried his hand at basketball in school, learning the game from his father, long-time Conneaut coach Andy Garcia, an original member of the ACBF Hall of Fame. But Phil admittedly didn’t have a lot of talent for the game and was cut as a senior by Paul Freeman, also an ACBF Hall of Famer. At that point, Garcia kept stats for the Spartans, traveling with the team. He also ran cross country.

He had begun officiating as an umpire in Little League and, in the case of basketball, as a referee in junior high school games. By age 19, he obtained his license to officiate basketball, at that time needing only to pass a written test with 75 percent or above. Now, a 25-hour class is required, a class Garcia himself organized and has conducted for 19 years.

After an apprenticeship in which he worked junior high, freshman and JV games, he was officiating some games at the high-school level by his second year. That his dad was the official assigner for the Northeastern Conference didn’t hurt his progression.

His first NEC game was a contest between Harvey and Geneva, coached by two legendary coaches, John D’Angelo of Harvey and Bill Koval of Geneva, another ACBF Hall of Fame coach.

“I was nervous, but it went all right,” Garcia said.

At least partially because of his father’s connections, Garcia quickly got jobs in Lake, Geauga, Cuyahoga and Trumbull counties to supplement his Ashtabula County assignments. By his fifth year, he was working tournament games. His first such contest pitted Clark Kellogg’s St. Joseph’s team against Dave Youdath’s Lake Catholic Cougars.

From there, it was another step up to state tournament games. Garcia has worked 10 girls state tournament games and one boys tourney contest. That’s in addition to the three state baseball tourneys he’s umpired, one softball state tournament and one football state tournament game.

Garcia’s officiating schedule has kept him busy year-round. He has held his baseball and softball officiating certificate since 1974 and has worked football games for 22 years.

In addition to actually officiating so many games, he’s kept busy as an assigner of officials, a job his father held before him, assigning officials for seven schools in the Premier Athletic Conference, St. John, Conneaut, Edgewood and Grand River Academy, as well as junior high assignments for others, including Jefferson. He also assigns officials for other sports, including wrestling, football, volleyball, baseball, softball and track. In short, Garcia has a hand in almost every high school sport, one way or another.

Early in his career he found his life employment as a caterer. Phil’s Catering is now headquartered at a building at the intersection of Carpenter and Lake Roads in Ashtabula. The hours mesh well with his officiating schedule.

“It gives me the flexibility I need to do all those (other) things,” he said.

“It just seemed natural to me. I liked the idea of working for myself and it gave me more time to handle all my officiating assignments.”

Garcia has catered events as large as Premix’s 30th anniversary celebration (early in his career), with 4,000 people in attendance. But area sports figures are probably more familiar with his catering at the Ashtabula County Touchdown Club and Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation banquets.

In fact, Garcia is a charter director of the ACBF. In addition to catering that event, he also serves the organization well in organizing tournaments; helping choose high school players, coaches and officials for honors; helping with the selection of Hall of Famers; and introducing each year’s selection of Official of the Year at the banquet. I’ve probably forgotten something, but Phil is a difficult person to keep up with.

“I think it’s a wonderful organization,” he says of the ACBF. “It promotes basketball in the county, honors the (current) players and coaches and honors those of the past. Those are amazing stories to read what happened 30 or 40 years ago. For those people to get recognized is important.

“It brings out the history of Ashtabula County basketball. The county has had some amazing players and coaches. Mike (Joslin) and Nick (Iarocci), with the input of the directors have done a nice job with it. I hope it keeps going.”

Garcia’s officiating schedule has been disrupted for the past couple of years because of medical issues. In 2012, he discovered he had pancreatitis and was hospitalized for 10 days. A year later, he had to have his gall bladder removed. During that surgery, it was discovered he had a hernia. The combined operation meant seven more days in the hospital.

He credits Dr. Goel of the Geneva Medical Center for getting through those surgeries.

“Dr. Goel is an excellent doctor,” he said. “He did a tremendous job, kind of saved my life. I was in critical condition with the pancreatitis.

“I’ve fully recovered after the second (operation). I want to get back on the football field. Right now I’m doing a little softball and baseball, along with assigning officials.

“My family helped a lot through my illness — my brother Rich and his wife and my brother Andy, along with my cousin, John Ruth.”

Garcia is 58 now, but has no plans to give up his officiating soon.

“I realize I’ve lost a step or two, but I like to think I’ve made up for it by having better mechanics and being in better shape,” he said. “I owe it, especially to the players and the coaches, to give it my best effort, night in, night out, regardless of the game or the caliber of the teams.

“It’s been enjoyable and I plan to continue to officiate if my health is good. I enjoy working with my fellow officials and athletes. Every game is big to the kids.”

Garcia credits officials who preceded him — people like his dad, Bud Ruland, Bill Sopchak, Bill Brainard and Henry Garvey — with inspiring him and teaching him.

He also appreciates the work of those who help him in his catering business — Theron Osborne, Terry Brown and Shirley Orlando, as well as all the teenagers that have worked for him and with him all these years.

“They’ve kept my business going,” he said. “They’ve been a big help there.

“The staff at Geneva Medical Center has been tremendous. I couldn’t get better care. All the officials I’ve worked with, the coaches and players, have been great. I’ve had a very rewarding career, and I appreciate it.”

Larick, a retired Star Beacon sportswriter, is a freelance writer from Geneva.