The Evster spends a day reffing 6th grade girls basketball

The Evster spends a day reffing 6th grade girls basketball

Two people who are not me.

It's not easy to take your pants off in the driver's seat of a 1999 Nissan Altima. But for some reason, that's what I chose to do on a cold, January morning, in the parking lot of a local suburban high school. Relax, the lot was pretty much empty -- except for one beat-up station wagon that belonged to the janitor -- and I wasn't so much taking OFF my pants as I was CHANGING them. You see, I had just purchased a fresh pair of nylon black track pants, because I, my good friends, am a 6th grade girls basketball ref.

There are few jobs in the world more thankless than being a ref. Friend to no one, enemy to all, wearer of ridiculous all-black sneakers. You never really get used to the outfit, going out in public looking like a loon, but you do it anyway, because you respect the game (and are desperate to make a little extra cash to keep your wife off your back).

Saturday was the opening day of the season and I arrived at my destination 45 minutes ahead of time. I did this partially because I grew up being late to everything, leading me to become a very punctual adult, but mostly because I wanted to give myself plenty of time to take a pregame smash.

Plenty of great seats still available.

Anyone who has ever showed up to a public school on a Saturday morning, when the wind is howling and ice covers the walk, knows that you never choose the right door to enter in on your first attempt. It's impossible. Pull the handle, locked. Go to the next one, locked. Then panic starts to creep in, and you try another, C'MON, and another, WHAT, and then you start to wonder if you're even at the right place. Is there an auxiliary gym? What time does this start? But then eventually one opens and the heat hits your face and all is right in this stupid, cruel world.

I was lucky enough to get in on my third try, and then quickly found a boys bathroom emptier than a cave (one of the benefits of reffing girls instead of boys). There, I handled my business and sent a few tweets, and after tucking in my shirt and testing out my whistle, I walked toward the gym with the sound of pounding basketballs guiding the way.

As game time approached, the players trickled in. One by one, they showed up with their parents, with basketballs bigger than their heads. Most wore fancy new sneakers -- a lot of Nike Kevin Durant's -- and those super-duper-padded socks, the $16 Nike jawns with the dotted lines on the heel that every mustachioed Delco teenager asked for this Christmas. One girl practiced doing splits at midcourt.

Meanwhile, I did some light stretching (which was pretty much unnecessary) while yucking it up with the kid at the scorer's table. In charge of the scoreboard that day was 14-year-old Max, a little guy who had a giant cowlick on the back of his head, making it obvious that his mom had just woke him up. He was a nice enough kid (his hair was honestly incredible) even though he had those weird colored braces that no parent should ever let their child wear. Max told me about his friend Kyle who was supposed to do the book, but he couldn't come because he had the flu, or was in Maine or something, I couldn't really follow because Max's hair was so amazing and he had so much food in his braces. Soon after, another guy came over wearing all-black New Balances. He introduced himself as Cliff, my new best friend.

Not only my best friend, my only friend. Sure, Max was cool, and he snorted when he laughed, but Cliff was my homeboy. Over the next three games, we would go to war together -- getting yelled at by coaches, questioned by parents, backing up each other's calls -- officiating together in a united front.

Soon the warmup buzzer sounded and it was time to tip off (something that was obvious to only me, Cliff and maybe three other people). The coaches and players just kinda stood there until we told the coaches to pick their starters. Then, ten pre-adolescent girls walked out on the floor, looking confused and nervous and absolutely adorable. The Black team immediately set up in a 2-3 zone defense. Like why even bother to jump it up, right? So I had to tell them to come to half court. "All right girls, let's jump it up," I said, but this meant absolutely nothing to them. I might as well have said, "All right girls, flibble-dee-floo!" So I tried again, "Need someone to jump here," but nothin. Eventually I had to coax the girls to come toward me. "Okay, we need a player from the Pink team and a player from the Black team. We're gonna have a jump ball. I'm gonna throw the ball up, and you're gonna try to tip it to a teammate. Are you wearing a necklace? You have to take that off. No jewelry," then all of a sudden 10 girls ran off the court, climbing into the stands to find their parents to help them take off their earrings. Eventually they came back and two girls finally stepped up. Cliff gave me a nod. Max gave me a wink with both eyes. We were ready to go. The season was about to begin.

Textbook defensive stance.

The key to success in 6th grade girls basketball is having a girl who can dribble. Just one, that's all you need. One girl who can successfully take a basketball and bounce it against the ground, over and over and over again. On this particular day, the Pink team had a STUD, a short girl with a side pony who cut through the defense like a hungry squirrel. She brought the ball up, popped it around, stole it from her teammates, and occasionally drove to the hoop and made a few bankers. She ended up scoring 14 of her team's 18 total points. I'm 95% sure she was a Lobo.

The Black team, they weren't so lucky. They had one redheaded girl who could kind of handle the ball, although every time down the floor she picked up her dribble. She also had no idea how to pivot, and sometimes bent over with the ball, hugging it tightly like she had the world's worst stomach ache.

"You need to pass the ball, okay? You can't just hold it. Or I'm gonna have to call Five Seconds on you."

She nodded and said "okay," and seemed to understand, but frankly I'm not sure she spoke English.

Honestly though, I'm being a little harsh. The girls were not that bad. A few could dribble and catch and rebound, and some could actually run up and down the floor without crashing into the scorer's table. I'm kidding, I'm kidding, some even had decent instincts and could read the flow of the game. Still, it was painful to watch, and even harder to ref, because their movements were so all over the place.

In my short time reffing (I've been doing it for two years) I've realized the key to making the right call is just to act like you're right, all the time. No matter what happens, or what you may or may not have seen, just make a call in the most convincing way possible. "OFF BLACK'S KNEE! PINK BALL!" with very dramatic arm motions. Then grab the rock and get ready to inbound. Was it really off Black? Who knows. There's no reason to live in the past.

I have no doubt that it'd be easier to ref a Final Four game in a hostile arena than run up and down the floor with 6th graders. With boys (or men, or women at a higher skill level) the game is fluid, and you can read the action and anticipate players' movements. With 6th grade girls, it's a non-stop tornado. Heaps of girls crashing into one another, tumbling over, and slamming onto the ground. You have never heard a thuddier thud than the thud created by a 12-year-old girl on a one-woman fast break. There's no grace. No ability to control their bodies. Just a bunch of young women falling to earth like a sack of potatoes. I've never even seen (or heard) a sack of potatoes hit the ground before, but I can guarantee you that it's the perfect analogy for this particular situation.

The last few minutes are always a shit show. In this particular matchup, Black had come back, cutting the lead to three points in the final two minutes. This caused every person in the gym to lose their minds. At one point, I looked to the Pink team's bench and a girl was just jumping in place, spinning around like goddamn ballerina. A father in the stands kept screaming, "THAT'S HOW WE DO. THAT'S HOW WE DO." He was wearing khakis. On three straight possessions, the players just took the ball and jacked it. Not even looking, they just inbounded the ball and hurled it toward the basket. One girl took a closely contested 35-foot fadeaway jumper. Not one shot came close. One airball actually bounced under the hoop and landed in a bucket. Not THE bucket, not the bucket they were supposed to be shooting at, but a bucket that was sitting on the floor against a nearby wall. I don't even know why the bucket was there. Maybe there was a leak in the roof? Or maybe the janitor left it? Either way, at one point toward the end of the game, there was a basketball stuck in a bucket.

As the clock ticked down to 1:15 left in the 4th, a crazy woman started screaming, "STOP THE CLOCK. STOPPPP THEEEE CLOCCCKKKKK, OMG STOPPPP THE CLOCKKKKKKKKK." She actually said, "OMG." Like, those words actually came out of her mouth. And of course Max, who is a CHILD, stopped the clock because an adult told him to. The thing was, that in this particular league, the clock only stops during the last minute of the game. So I had to blow my whistle, calm everyone down and explain to the parents that the clock would run until the last minute. The screaming woman didn't get it. "It IS the last minute!" she said, which made me question if I knew what a minute was. Finally, I realized that she was in fact that crazy one, which made me strangely more attracted to her.

In the game's final moments, Pink's point guard hit a game clinching three (YEAH, AN ACTUAL THREE) that put the game out of reach and saved me and Cliff (and Max) from three more minutes of hell overtime.

After the buzzer, the girls all shook hands, while Cliff and I collapsed against the bleachers.

"What a whirlwind, huh?" Cliff said.

Absolutely bonkers, I replied.

Then we both just sat there in silence. Reflecting on the game, hoping we kept it fair, wondering why Max took his shoes off.

"You know where the bathroom's at, Ev? I gotta take a Hulkster."

Yes I do, best friend.

I certainly do.

Follow The Evster @TVMWW.

Flyers-Oilers 5 things: Winning streak meets Connor McDavid

Flyers-Oilers 5 things: Winning streak meets Connor McDavid

Flyers (15-10-3) vs. Oilers (14-10-4)
7 p.m. on CSN and CSNPhilly.com, Pregame Live at 6:30

The hottest team in the NHL will meet the hottest young star on Thursday night when the Flyers host the Edmonton Oilers at the Wells Fargo Center.

Here are five things you need to know for the matchup:

1. McDavid and Co.
The Flyers are going for their seventh consecutive victory, which would tie their longest winning streak since Dec. 2-15, 2011, when they also won seven in a row.

In order to do so, they’ll have to slow down transcendent talent Connor McDavid and the prolific but streaky Oilers.

McDavid, a generational player, has thus far lived up to all the hype surrounding him as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. In just his second NHL season — and first with a healthy start after an injured-shortened rookie year (45 games) — the 19-year-old leads all of hockey in points with 36, while no other player has yet to eclipse 30.

His 25 assists also rank atop the NHL, while his 11 goals are among the top 22 and his plus-8 rating is tied for ninth best between all centers.

“He’s one of the best players in the world,” Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said Wednesday. “It’s tough not to be excited when playing against a guy who plays like this. He competes every second he is on the ice.”

And he has help.

Linemates Leon Draisaitl (11 goals, 11 assists) and Milan Lucic (eight goals, 12 assists) can do damage, as can Jordan Eberle (eight goals, 13 assists).

2. Defense wins games
The Flyers are playing better and cleaner in front of their goaltender — who has been great (see below) — and the results are showing.

The orange and black have gone five straight games of allowing two or fewer goals.

Why were they so up and down before this run? Well, they had surrendered two or fewer goals in just five of their previous 23 games.

“That’s unbelievable for us,” Wayne Simmonds said after Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the Panthers. “At the beginning of the year, to say we’d have five straight without giving up more than two would be a stretch.
 
“We’ve locked it down defensively and Mase has played unbelievable. We’ve been pretty good as five-man units.”

3. Mase the man
A confident Steve Mason is a dangerous Steve Mason.

Right now, Mason has the net and is gaining steam by the game.

Over his past five outings, the 28-year-old is 5-0-0 with a 1.74 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.

Just as impressive, since Nov. 12, Mason is 8-3-1 with a 2.11 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.

“I've said it numerous times, I want to be playing lots of hockey,” Mason said Tuesday. “This is a position that I'm used to being in and where I'm most comfortable. So just have to keep continuing to put my work in and whenever [head coach Dave Hakstol] calls my name, be ready."

4. Keep an eye on ...
Flyers: You always have to watch Simmonds, but especially now with the winger coming off back-to-back two-goal games. Simmonds leads the NHL with eight power-play goals and is second in man-advantage points (13) to only teammate Claude Giroux (14).

Oilers: With all the attention zeroed in on McDavid, we’ll go with the 21-year-old Draisaitl, who has seven goals in his last nine games and 14 points in his past 12. The No. 3 overall pick in 2014 is an intelligent playmaker capable of hurting you.

5. This and that
• Mason is 8-4-0 with just a 3.49 goals-against average and .872 save percentage in 13 career games against Edmonton.

• Oilers goalie Jonas Gustavsson will make his fourth start of the season. He’s 1-1-1 on the year with 84 saves on 91 shots faced, but is 0-4-1 lifetime against the Flyers with a 3.57 goals-against average and .865 save percentage.

• The Flyers are fourth in the NHL in goals per game (3.11), while Edmonton is seventh (2.93).

• The Oilers have lost 10 of their last 15 games (5-7-3).

Flyers skate update: Wayne Simmonds, power play key to beating Oilers

Flyers skate update: Wayne Simmonds, power play key to beating Oilers

Todd McLellan saw a lot of Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov as a junior player in the Western Hockey League whenever the Brandon Wheat Kings would turn up in Edmonton.

“I watched him play in junior and had a chance to see that Brandon team play in Edmonton twice last year,” said the Edmonton Oilers coach.

“Obviously, a smooth, confident [player] with great vision. He has patience with the puck. Those are his offensive assets. 

“But he also positions himself well, defensively. He accepts that responsibility. For a young d-man, he is ahead of a lot of others because he can play on both sides of the puck.”

Provorov rattled Jaromir Jagr Tuesday when Florida was here (see story). Tonight he gets his first NHL taste of Connor McDavid.

McLellan said the Oilers' biggest challenge against the Flyers will be stopping the NHL’s second-ranked power play. Edmonton has the 11th best penalty kill.

His concern is Wayne Simmonds (8 power play goals) and Claude Giroux (14 power play points). 

“That power play is deadly and it really hasn’t changed — it’s just clicking,” McLellan said. “It has a couple trigger points. Obviously, Simmonds has the most goals in the league  and Giroux has the most points. But there’s other pieces to that power play, which are exceptional. 

“Our penalty kill has been taking it on the chin and I had to ask our guys today, 'Is it the penalty kill or the penalties?' In my opinion, it’s as much the penalties as the penalty kill. We have to stay out of the box.  

“This is a confident Flyers team. They feel very good in the offensive zone and make things happen. Their goaltender [Steve Mason] has been making saves for them that keeps them confident going the other way. It’s a team on the rise.”

The Streak
The Flyers are looking to make it seven straight wins tonight against the Oilers. The last time they won seven in arrow was Dec. 2-15 in 2011. They did not have a morning skate.

On Mason
Tuesday’s win against Florida was Steve Mason’s 88th as a Flyer, moving him past Pelle Lindbergh into sixth in franchise history. Mason needs six wins to move into third place in franchise history. 

Debut
Defenseman Dillon Simpson will make his Oilers debut tonight in Philadelphia. He is the son of former Oiler Craig Simpson. 

The oddity? Last year, Keegan Lowe made his Oilers' debut here in Philadelphia. He is the son of Kevin Lowe, longtime coach and front office executive for the Oilers. 

Colors
The Oilers wear three colors during their morning skate. Their defensemen dress in orange; their third and fourth lines dress in white and their top six skaters dress in blue. Now that’s an NHL hierarchy.