By Chris Goldberg
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 1/21/09
Some people play and maybe coach lacrosse and then decide they want to become an official once they’ve decided they can do a better job than the umpires they’ve questioned for so long.
But Jen O’Donnell’s calling from the beginning was to officiate the sport she loves so much.
O’Donnell, of West Chester, is regarded as one of the top umpires in all of lacrosse, national and international. She has umpired 10 straight NCAA Division I championship games and 12 overall while also working the final games in the last two World Cups.
Nearly any official will tell you they never want to be noticed. That’s the game of being a referee. But O’Donnell is being recognized now, as one of nine people who will be inducted into the Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter of the US Lacrosse Hall of Fame on Saturday, Feb. 7 at the Desmond Hotel in Malvern.
A limited number of tickets are available for the event, run by the Philadelphia Lacrosse Association (PLA). More information on purchasing tickets can be found by clicking here for the PLA website.
Other inductees include two are being honored posthumously, Gertrude Dunn (player and coach) and George Kruse (player, coach and official). Others are Bonnie Rosen (player and coach), Margery Watson(player and coach), Edward R. (Randy) Marks (coach), Marcia Brumbach (coach), Gregory Traynor (player), and John Begier (player and coach).
O’Donnell, a graduate of Upper Perkiomen High, was a senior at West Chester College in 1983 when a letter arrived offering her the chance to officiate lacrosse.
Mind you, she was always interested in being a referee because her father, Kenneth Miller, was a well-regarded high school basketball ref. So, she jumped at the chance to get started.
“He always liked it and was later the commissioner of the PAC-10 for officials,” she said. “I think that letter was sent from heaven. I don’t know what led me to getting it, but I figured I’d give it a try.”
O’Donnell started doing junior high and middle school games and enjoyed the work immensely
“I was student-teaching that spring when I started officiating and I absolutely loved it,” said O’Donnell, who played lacrosse one year at West Chester. “I just took to it. I loved it.”
By her second year, O’Donnell was working high school games and doing doubleheaders. She continually received support from the Philadelphia board of umpires, now called the Philadelphia Women’s Lacrosse Umpires Association (PWLUA).
O’Donnell made it a point to credit her mentors when she started. They included: Jackie Hufnell and Joan Wagner (both still umping) and now-retired Judy Wolstenholme, Anne Gasser, Linda Bensing and former assigner Kim Basner.
“The Philly board was just awesome in teaching and helping people along,” O’Donnell said. “Those people really helped me and taught me a lot. They took me under their wing. Kim Basner, the assigner, would say to me, ‘You’re young, you know the game.’ She was instrumental and a real positive force.”
By 1988, O’Donnell was exclusively working college games. In 1994 she did her first NCAA title game, which saw Princeton defeat host Maryland.
“I was very nervous,” she admitted. “I just wanted to blow that first whistle. Once I got past that, I was fine for the rest of the game. It was pretty exciting.”
O’Donnell, however, said that umpiring championship games is not much different than a regular season game.
“It’s nothing different than any other game,” she said. “You don’t recognize the people, you don’t pay attention. The only thing you have to pay attention to now is TV timeouts. They get a little upset if you mess that up.”
“One thing I tell new officials is that sometimes playoff games aren’t the best games. You could have a regular season game that can be real intense and tight and be the best game of the year.
“You have to stay level, you can’t make them bigger than they are. It’s just another game. You have to stay calm. I always tell the younger officials that we have to stay calm because nobody else is. The coaches are all wound up and the NCAA people are tight as a drum.”
O’Donnell said the best part of being a women’s lacrosse umpire is the closeness she shares with her fellow officials.
“The camaraderie is great,” she said. “There is nothing like team sports and once you graduate and you don’t have that anymore, it’s tough. We as officials we have that feeling.
“We travel together and share all our stories in the car – good, bad or funny. We laugh so much. We expect a level of competence and we watch over each other and look out for each other on the field. They are some of my best friends.”
O’Donnell was shocked to hear she was being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“I was absolutely surprised,” she said. “I guess because, jokingly, I figure they want feel I should be ready to retire. But I am only 47 and I still have a lot left in me.
“I am honored, surprised and thrilled. It will be a real exciting evening and I’ll have a lot of family and friends there.”
Currently, O’Donnell is a building substitute at Bayard Rustin of the West Chester School District. She also is the head field hockey coach at Rustin and this year will be an assistant lacrosse coach at Henderson – meaning she will cut back slightly onher college officiating.
Normally she works about 45 college games (including playoffs), many in the Philadelphia area. She does work many games around the country, though, and she serves as the assigner for over 40 NCAA teams. She has also worked the Under-19 World Cup in Perth, Australia and in 2001 did the Sr. World Cup games in High Wycombe, England.
She will be officiating in her 27th straight season this year.
“I’ll keep going as long as my body holds up,” she said.