Harbach and Lefkowski. Two of the best refs on the court.
TORRINGTON – As the two men went about their job of preparing for the Berkshire League Tournament Championship game, they went about their pregame planning just as the coaches and players do.
Except their task was to maintain control on the hardwood for what was expected to be a tough, physical game between two rivals, Nonnewaug and Northwestern.
Aaron Lefkowski and Charley Harbach are the guys with the whistles who do their best to be invisible while maintaining control in a fast paced, wall to wall action contest for the top spot in the tournament. And, by no means, do they have an easy job.
Let’s face it, to be a referee requires an ability to block out a whole bunch of noise. Most times when they make a call, 50 percent of the players, coaches and fans think they made the wrong call while the other half celebrates but knows they may be on the other side at some point
These two, though, have become some of the best at what they do. Just ask some of the coaches who were on hand Wednesday night at Wamogo High School.
“What these guys give us is an honest effort,” Wamogo girls basketball coach Kevin Crowley said. “They allow you to ask a question if we are not sure what happened. They will come over and give you an explanation which I appreciate.”
Fred Williams, the Highlanders girls’ hoops guru, also appreciated how the team he was watching performed on a nightly basis.
“They are two of the best,” Williams said. “They are consistent. If it’s a foul in the first quarter, it’s a foul in the fourth quarter. What you don’t want from a referee is for them to change during the game and these guys don’t.’’
They have been making their way up and down the hardwood for some time now. Harbach for 32 years, Lefkowski 19 on the board he is now President of, 25 years in total.
Harbach is a teacher at The Gilbert School, while Lefkowski is the owner of the Caplan Insurance, based out of West Hartford.
“I played for two years in college,” Harbach said. “I was born in Pennsylvania and they switched coaches so I decided I was going to get out. One of the guys who was part of the security crew around school knew that I was a basketball player and he saw the team out there practicing in the fall and asked me if I was hurt. But I said I wasn’t playing because of the new coach and all that kind of stuff. He said why don’t you referee, you could give something back to the game. So, that’s how I got started.”
Harbach spent 12 years refereeing at Division II and III and had his share of fun. But the miles logged got to be a bit much.
“I was refereeing in places like New Jersey or Delaware,” Harbach said. “I would travel up to Amherst College in Massachusetts or down to the Coast Guard Academy as well.”
What these two have been able to build in the area is a trust factor with the coaches. If they get a call wrong, they are not afraid to own it and let the coaches know that they did so.
It’s all coaches want, just the chance to understand why something was called.
The game on Wednesday night lived up to the advance build up. It was a tough, physical game that the two guys running the court kept a good grip on. Not a smothering one. At times they let them play. At other times they made sure things stayed in order.
It was a back and forth contest that came down to a foul call with 9.5 seconds to go that was decided on a pair of free throws by Nonnewaug’s Nick DeCicco in a 42-40 win.
The Highlanders looked to get off a desperation three-pointer with 1.9 to play and while the Northwestern crowd was screaming for a foul on the play, the duo saw nothing that would have warranted one.
“There was nothing there,” Harbach said. “We were both looking right through the play. He tried to lean in and throw a desperation shot.”
How is refereeing a game like this?
“These are so much easier,” Harbach said. “If I’m in a 40-point blowout, that’s extremely hard to keep the concentration going. This is easy because everything counts. It’s easy to concentrate and stay focused.”
If a coach doesn’t remember who ran the game on the court, it’s a good thing and these guys know it.
“That’s something we always talk about before the game,” Harbach said. “Being consistent on both ends. So if we’re going to have a bad night, we’re going to stink at both ends.”
The team has been together seven or eight times this year and, if they had their way, would work together every night.
“When they don’t know you’re there it’s a good thing,” Lefkowski said. “I did a game last week up at Trinity Pawling and I walk in and the coach goes, `Oh, we got you guys. Haven’t seen you all year.’ It was my third time working there. So it tells you something. If they don’t remember you, you must be doing something right.”
Being part of a big game is something that brings out the best in anybody on the court, including the guys in stripes.
“These guys get up for a big game,” Northwestern coach Doug Sebach said. “I think they do a great job.”
Doing this as long as they have means each of these guys must have their share of great stories, some good some bad. Harbach shared one about a particularly loud fan.
“I made a call that was at the foul line,” Harbach said. “The guy sitting behind me is yelling, going `That was awful, you’re blind.’ All that kind of stuff. A couple of times down the floor my partner made a call underneath the basket and the guy goes, ‘You gotta go help him that was awful. You need to go help him’. I just turned to him and said, `I can’t, didn’t get my glasses yet.”’
So, in the near future if you run into these two very familiar faces at a State Tournament game near you, understand that if you don’t remember them when you leave they have accomplished their mission.