Column

Too many penalties called in prep football season's first weekend

Eric Sondheimer
Contact ReporterVarsity Times Insider

At a time of excessive heat warnings, maybe there should be another kind of warning in high school football: for excessive penalties.

The number of holding and pass interference penalties during opening week was staggering.

The Calabasas-Dorsey and Narbonne-Gardena Serra games produced more than 400 yards in combined penalties. Santa Margarita picked up 11 penalties in its game against Downey. Even powerful Corona Centennial had double-digit penalties, including eight on offense — five for holding.

It might be time to remind the officials that they are not supposed to be in the spotlight.

As 82-year-old John Pemberton said, “I want to be the invisible official.”

Pemberton has been officiating since 1968. He spent 25 years as a football referee in what used to be the Pac-10 Conference. He’s a referee for City Section games on Friday nights, and he takes an unusual approach toward holding penalties. Call it the Kenny Rogers way of thinking, referring to “The Gambler” song from 1978.

“You got to know when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em and when to walk away,” Pemberton said.

Specifically, he doesn’t throw his flag unless the play is clearly influenced by a hold. That’s bliss to coaches who are seeing their offensive linemen flagged again and again.

Flag day isn’t until June 14, but flags were flying during the season’s first weekend.

“Man, not only were there tons of penalties, but our game was almost three hours long,” Calabasas coach Casey Clausen said. “Some were obviously holding penalties. I just think the kids have been practicing against each other for so long they got too excited.”

Another possible explanation is that the reduced amount of hitting and contact during practices — limits installed for safety reasons — had an effect on penalties.

One coach, who requested anonymity — he wanted to avoid potentially upsetting officials — said, “I think it’s ridiculous. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Pemberton said his philosophy toward holding penalties was simple and the same whether the game was high school or college.

“If it has a direct effect on the play and puts another team at a disadvantage, you make the call,” he said.

Not everyone likes that. He remembers an officials’ clinic attended by the late Larry Smith, when Smith was the head coach at USC.

“To heck with it doesn’t affect the play,’” Smith said. “Call them all.”

The question is: How will coaches deal with the surge in penalties?

Matt Logan, a big winner at Corona Centennial, said he makes players who pick up “dumb” penalties, such as personal fouls, run at practice.

And remember, Logan had the NFL’s latest penalty magnet, Vontaze Burfict, on his team.

“He ran a little bit,” Logan said.

Logan doesn’t penalize offensive linemen for holding penalties because “I consider holding a cost of doing business,” he said.

First games can be a little tricky, with officials, players and coaches regaining a feel for what’s legal and what’s not.

“Everybody is just trying to get it right,” Dorsey coach Charles Mincy said. “I think it was fair. It was just a lot of penalties.”

The Narbonne-Serra game had seven officials instead of the usual five. Coach Manuel Douglas paid for the extra officials because seven is the number used in championship games. The Gauchos were called for just one holding penalty, but Narbonne had issues with pass interference.

Maybe offensive linemen will start requesting to have Pemberton as their referee — the fewer holding calls, the happier their coach will be.

“I can’t remember the last time I called a holding call,” Pemberton said. “I call clipping, blocking in the back, roughing the passer, but holding isn’t one of the things I specialize in anymore.”

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

Twitter: latsondheimer

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