Good Life

Q&A: Stan Latta

Stan Latta has been a high school and collegiate soccer referee for the last 35 years.
Stan Latta has been a high school and collegiate soccer referee for the last 35 years. CDT photo

Stan Latta accepts that he cannot call the perfect game, but he knows he can try.

Latta, 61, has refereed about 2,500 high school and collegiate soccer games in 35 years. He said his brightest moments on the field include refereeing an Elite 8 NCAA Tournament game and four PIAA Championships, but a bittersweet game is on the horizon — his last college match at Juniata College. He said he’ll stick with the high school level for a few more years.

When he’s not refereeing soccer, Latta is the Assistant Vice President for Housing, Food Services and Residence Life at Penn State.

How did you become interested in refereeing soccer?

Well, I knew someone here at the university who had been a referee. His name was Jim Klein, and he and I were colleagues together and he knew I had an interest in soccer. He asked me if I’d ever had an interest in being a referee, and soon he had me at a chapter meeting to meet some of the guys. I enjoyed it, so I took the PIAA test, passed, got my license, joined the chapter and that’s how I became a referee.

Did you play soccer before becoming a referee?

I played in high school for four years, and I was recruited to play at some different colleges. However, I wanted to come to Penn State, and I wanted to be involved in soccer. When I learned I could referee high school sports, it was exciting. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

What was it like transitioning from player to referee?

Well, you know, when you’re a referee it’s a lot different than being a player. I was very comfortable being a player, but as a referee you’re managing the game from a different perspective. I was a little nervous at first going onto the pitch and refereeing. I enjoyed it, though, and enjoyed being an educator. A lot of what I did at the university were skills that I could transfer to being a referee.

For me, and I’ll give you my philosophy, I think there are four important skill sets to refereeing: 1. You have to know the rules. 2. You have to know how to apply the rules. 3. You have to be in the right position to make the call. 4. Most importantly for me, you have to know how to manage people. That’s what I think being a good referee is about, managing people. There are a lot of referees that know the rule book in and out, but don’t know how to apply them or work with people effectively.

Who is most difficult to manage — fans, coaches or players?

I think it’s difficult to manage the fans and the parents, because some of them don’t understand the rules. They’re also really outside the context of the game, because you’re concerned about the 22 players, the benches and the coaches. Many times fans and parents think they can influence what’s going on, on the field. It’s difficult at times to educate them about what you’re doing. Sometimes parents are the most difficult aspect of refereeing a game.

What is important for people to understand about refereeing?

I think what’s important is that every referee goes out and wants to call the game fairly for both sides. I think it’s important for everyone to understand we will not see everything. I have not yet in 35 years refereed the perfect game. I’m still waiting for that day. There are 22 players and usually two officials monitoring the play, plus the coaches, plus the bench, so we don’t see everything. I think consistency and fairness and player safety are the three pillars that coaches expect from officials. They know we won’t see everything, but they want to know you’re being fair and consistent.

What are some of the more spectacular feats you’ve seen on a soccer field?

As you know, soccer is a low-scoring game for the most part. I’ve seen players score directly from a kickoff and into the net. I’ve seen a goalkeeper take a punt and kick it right into the opposing team’s (goal). Probably the most creative goal I’ve seen was a high school player put his back to the goal, take a pass off his chest and do a bicycle kick into the net from about 20 yards out. It takes a moment to realize exactly what you just saw, and that’s what is difficult about refereeing. We don’t have the ability to watch instant replay. It’s all game-time speed. You have to make quick decisions about what you saw.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen on a soccer field?

Most of the fields in Pennsylvania, especially in the Centre Region, are countryside fields. Some are in stadiums, but most of the time the game is on an open field. We’ve had dogs run onto the field, rabbits, little kids, deer, but probably the most unique animal that’s ever visited the field was a cow. It somehow got out of its pasture, decided to come down to the field to graze, and it was just in the corner of the field grazing and watching the soccer game at the same time. So, we had to stop the game and get the farmer to take the cow back to its pasture. That’s probably a 20 minute delay for a cow that wanted to graze and watch the game.

How much longer do you continue to referee?

This is my last year for college. After 30 years, I’m leaving college. I’m a fan of Clint Eastwood, and he said, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” and with the speed and caliber of play of the college athlete today, this should be my last year for college, in fairness to the sport. As I’ve said, you need to be in position to make the right calls, and although my understanding of the game, the rules and how to apply them are better than 15 or 20 years ago, I get a year older every year. The players in college and high school stay the same age every year. I decided after this year, it’s time to let the younger folks take on the college game. In a typical college match, you can run 4, 5, 6, 7 miles as the referee. In high school, you don’t have to run as much.

How do you stay physically fit to keep up with the game for 35 years?

I’ve always liked competition. I’ve always liked sports, so I keep in shape, and I think that’s important in the game of soccer when you’re officiating, because you’re running an awful, awful lot. That’s one of the reasons I’m leaving the college game, because at my age it’s difficult to keep pace with the speed of the college athletes. I can still maintain speed with high school athletes. As much as I think I know the rules and how to apply them, being in the right position to make calls is critical. I’m 61 now, and it’s difficult to maintain that level of performance that I expect from myself and other referees at the college level.

Are you still learning about the game?

Absolutely, because the game changes, strategies and techniques change. It’s always interesting to see different coaches bring different perspectives to the game in terms of how they’re educating their players. The game is very simple, and it’s been called “the beautiful game” for a reason. There are 22 players, 2 nets and a ball. That’s it. It’s a constant game of offense and defense, strategy, when to attack, when to withdraw, when to and how to rebuild your attack, what the other team is doing to gain an advantage, so there’s an always changing flow to the game that you need to appreciate and learn.

What’s it like knowing you’re going into your last college match?

It’s bittersweet, because I really enjoy the game and officiating it. There’s a piece of me that’s competitive. I like competitive things, so refereeing in some way is a competition. Can I exceed the expectations? Can I exceed the expectations of the players and coaches? To some degree, being a referee is being a part of a competition. How well can you do it? There’s a piece of me that’s going to miss it at the college level.