When Reese Vandell was 12 years old, the number and range of paying jobs she could get were limited. There were the typical options like dog-walking and babysitting.
But there was something else she could do at that age.
She could become a soccer referee.
Reese had been playing soccer since she was 3 or 4, so she knew the game well. And the process of becoming a referee was a smooth one; she needed to take a couple of classes and a test, but then she’d be able to start.
She’s been refereeing ever since.
And as her recent recognitions show, she’s very good at it.
On Oct. 2, the Virginia Youth Soccer Association (VYSA) tweeted that Reese had been named its 2019 Young Female Referee of the Year.
One month later, on Nov. 11, the Powhatan High School senior earned an even higher honor, being named the U.S. Youth Soccer East Region’s Young Female Referee of the Year.
“It means so much – I was in shock when I got the nomination and I quickly got the recommendations that I needed (to be considered for the award),” Reese said after receiving her first honors from VYSA. “I felt like a better referee…and I felt a lot more confident in myself, because a lot of kids, they grow up and they think back and they’re like, ‘What have I accomplished in my life?’ And now I know that I’ve accomplished this and that I’m good at this.”
Her journey began with youth games, and from there, she’s progressed to making calls in contests featuring college-aged student-athletes as well as players around her age, including Division I prospects and commits.
She’s held different roles within the officiating crew as both the center referee and the assistant referee (AR).
“I like both,” Reese said. “I think I’m a better AR, but I’m learning to perfect my positioning as a center, and I like center a lot more.”
She’s officiated games that have stretched all the way into tense overtime, double-overtime and penalty-shootout scenarios.
“And although that’s very stressful, you have to take a deep breath and just go with it,” she said, “and…you just have to stay confident, because once the referee loses control, the whole game’s gone.”
Staying as confident as she can in her role is key for Reese.
“The people that are above me and everybody, they say that I’m very good at my job, so then I’ve started to believe that I’m good at my job,” she said, “so when I get on the field, I have a mindset of: I know what I’m doing, and I try to keep the players safe, and to call as tight as a game as I can, because I don’t want anybody to get hurt, and I want it to be a good game.”
She feels that refereeing definitely builds character.
“You have to learn to not take things so hard, so when a player or a coach says something about a certain call, you have to just brush it off and just move on,” she said. “And it really taught me confidence…and I feel like that just made me grow up faster as a kid growing up.”
Brian Smith, president of the Central Virginia Soccer Referee Association, said that Reese puts in the work both on and off the field, and she makes sure to attend all of CVSRA’s training events. She’s always working on improving as a referee, whether that means heading over to Fighting Creek Park and refereeing a U12 contest, or officiating Elite Clubs National League girls’ soccer matches.
“She’s got a real aptitude for it,” Smith said. “She enjoys it.”
Chris Barnard, vice president of the CVSRA, has seen Reese grow on and off the pitch.
“On the pitch she has improved each and every year,” Barnard said. “Her fitness, improving foul recognition and ability to manage games at the higher levels has been…rewarded by her receiving invitations to many of the top tournament academies in the state.”
Every two years, CVSRA sends six youth referees to France to referee international games in a tournament with mentorship from World Cup and FIFA-level referees. After Reese got on the association’s radar a couple of years ago, she “got the opportunity to earn her way to go to France,” according to Smith. And then last year, Reese was invited to attend the Jefferson Cup Academy, where she caught the eye of Brenda Wright, who is a former FIFA assistant referee, the former PRO NWSL assistant assigner and a current MLS match inspector. From there, Reese got invited to go to the Needham youth tournament in Massachusetts, as well as to the Virginia State Cup semifinal games, Smith said.
She’s learned a lot from the academies; she noted how a recent one featured one of the most decorated referees in the world, and that referee was female – which, to Reese, “was awesome to see.”
“It feels really good to have some of the best referees in the world teach us,” she added, “because we know that we can trust what they’re saying and that they know what they’re doing.”
Reese takes pride not only in the tightness of the games she officiates, but also in relying on others – on her officiating crew with whom she works.
“It’s not just the center that’s refereeing the game – it’s the whole crew,” she said. “To be able to trust each other and know that we know what we’re doing is very comforting, because we know that if there’s any controversy in a call, we know that we were right, or we keep the mindset that we were right – we’re not gonna change our call.”
She’s been surrounded by “such good referees and good people,” and she’s gotten “so much good advice” that has helped her to be a better person.
“I’ve learned a lot from older referees, and in certain cases…if there was a certain situation on the field and at halftime we talk about it, now I know what is a better way to go by that because they’ve been in the same situation before,” she said.
According to Smith, if Reese encounters a problem or thinks she had a bad game, she’ll seek out a more experienced referee and say: This happened. This is what I did. Did I do it right?
“And if she doesn’t do it right, she doesn’t get defensive about it,” Smith said. “She takes the criticism, she takes the feedback and she learns from it.”
When overseeing a game with younger kids, Reese noted that whenever you make a call, you want to make sure that you explain what you called, because sometimes they won’t know why you called what you called.
And then, she added, there’ll be several instances where you have to pull a player aside and talk to them, “and you have to let them know that the way they’re acting is not acceptable.”
“Sometimes that happens with a card or just a stern talking-to,” Reese said, “and especially with refereeing legally you can’t touch a player and you have to make it kind of obvious to the coaches and parents that, with your motions, that it’s not acceptable.”
There are instances where parents or coaches will say something they’re not supposed to say, or a player says something to another player along the lines of: “You’re bad at this game.” When those things happen, you have to address them right away, “because they cannot talk to each other like that,” Reese said.
“And I’ve had instances where parents are talking to the other team and saying [something] about how, ‘You grew up weird because you thought that that’s okay to foul someone like that,’” she said. “You have to address that right away so it doesn’t escalate.”
That’s why Reese likes to keep a tight game, because “those games are usually the safest.”
“No foul is going to be taken easily,” she said, “and nothing’s going to get out-of-hand” in order to make sure no one gets hurt. And if someone does get hurt, “then it’s from an accident – we stop the game, we make sure everything’s okay.”
Out of the games she’s refereed, the more adverse instances she’s faced haven’t happened that often. But when they do, she addresses them as soon as she can.
“It’ll happen once in every blue moon,” she said, “but it happens.”
And – she added – even though you as a referee might be upset with someone, you have to take a deep breath and speak to that individual calmly. You have to make sure that your point comes across, but not rudely.
“You have to have a very good poker face to be a referee,” Reese said. “And a lot of the times the coaches are like, ‘Smile a bit! Smile!’ But you can’t really have emotion on the field.”
When she sees football referees and baseball umpires during games, and she hears the crowd boo their calls, she definitely feels for the officials on the receiving end of those boos.
And when she’s participated in games as an athlete – she plays both soccer and basketball – she’s come across a lot of teammates who would talk to the referees and yell at them. Reese said she’d make sure her teammates knew that wasn’t okay – that they needed to be respectful towards them.
She knows it’s hard to make that call on the field, because “you know that it’s gonna be controversial.”
“A game rarely ends where both sides were happy with the outcome,” she said.
She remembers there having been a couple games where parents had come up to the officiating crew and said: You guys did an amazing job; this game was very well-done.
But she said that doesn’t happen often, “because no one likes all the calls.”
“You’re never gonna please everyone,” Reese said, “and that’s just something you have to come to terms with when you’re a referee.”
But you can still be honored for a job well done.
“This made me feel like I could go somewhere with refereeing,” Reese said of receiving referee of the year honors from VYSA. “It’s not just something to make me money; I could get better and…move up and ref higher games.”
She wants to ref for as long as she can.
“I plan to do it through college, after college,” she said. “I would love to take a flight to a game – that would be amazing…Ref professional games? That would be awesome – I would love to do that.”
And if you play soccer and you know soccer – or even if you don’t know it – Reese encourages you to try to be a referee.
“It takes…two five-hour classes and a test, and you have to recertify each year,” Reese said. “But it’s such a good job, and it builds character, and it’s a good way of making money. You make your own schedule, and that’s awesome.”
Reese is at that point now where she’s starting to work with younger, less experienced referees. She strives to create a comfortable learning environment and influence them to try their best and ask questions.
“And she understands that, whether she likes it or not, she’s a role model,” Smith said. “Even more-so now – she’s the youth female referee of the year. Referees know that. They’re gonna be looking at her and watching her and saying... ‘Hey, why’d you do this? Why’d you do that?’ And to be able to explain why you’re doing certain things is another understanding of the laws, and understanding your role in the game as she’s starting to give back.”
For those interested in donning the whistle and uniform, Reese offers the following:
“It seems very stressful and difficult at first,” she said. “My sister just started and it’s not her favorite thing to wake up at 7 a.m. in the morning on a Saturday and go ref a game at 8…but I’ve learned to love it. When I wake up, I wake up, and I go, and I’m excited for the game.”
You have to start off with a good mindset, she said.
“Because it will get better, and you will get better games…you will have the U16 final in a tournament,” Reese added. “It might seem tough at first, but it will get better along the way.”