Ashley-Ann Woods sounds like an English teacher when she describes her first game as a high school football referee.
"I remember that feeling of stepping out on the field, the smell and the anticipation and the way everything hung in the air," she says. "And the absolute thrill of the game. That's never left me, and every time I step on the field, it feels like that."
There's a good reason for that: Woods is an English teacher, and works in the office of academic affairs at Trident Tech.
She's also one of just five female referees working high school football games in South Carolina, which, like many other states, is strapped for game officials on Friday nights.
"We don't want to get in dire straits where we just can't cover games, and we're not far from that," said Charlie Wentzky, assistant commissioner of the S.C. High School League. "We're always one year away, in any sport, from a group of veteran officials deciding they are done.
"And if we lose 20 or 30 at a time in any one area, we're not getting them in 20 or 30 at a time to have them be ready to go."
'I can do that'
Woods, 35, has been officiating football games for seven years. A lifelong football fan (her dad played for Frank Howard at Clemson), she traces her interest in being a referee to watching a TV game with her husband.
"I made a comment that if that were a lady officiating, maybe they'd get the call right," she said. "And my husband said, 'No, women can't do that, it's a man's sport.'
"Well, I got online and did some research on the process, and I said, 'I can do that,'" Woods said. "By next spring, I jumped in head-first, and seven years later I'm still loving it."
Woods' story sounds a lot like that of Roxann King, the first female referee in S.C. high school football and the first to work on the crew at a state championship game.
King, 54, was sitting in the stands watching her son's 9th-grade football game when an official came into the stands, looking for someone to serve on the chain-gang for the first-down marker. The official asked King's husband.
"I'm like, wait a minute, I know three times as much about football as he does," King said. "The next game, he wasn't there and I got to down on the field. And I thought, 'Wow, this is exciting.'"
Woods and King both say that they've been treated well by their male colleagues and by players and coaches — for the most part.
"To be honest, 95 percent of the time I'm welcomed with open arms," said King, who works as an accountant. "But I have had occasions where everyone in the room was greeted but me. I thought, 'That's kind of odd, I'm in a uniform just like everyone else.'"
On the other hand, King once had a player ask her what she was doing after the game. "Like I could be his date," she said.
"One player tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Ma'am, you are doing an excellent job out there tonight.'"
Wentzky says there are about 500 officials working close to 100 games across the state on an average Friday night, and there are about 685 officials registered with the league.
"But that's a deceiving number," he said. "Of that 685, we have 40 or 50 who are in their first or second year. Some of them are ready, but some are not quite ready to jump on a varsity game, especially your higher level games that move at a fast speed.
"We really have about 600 ready to go, but the hard part is matching them to games where they live."
Most of the High School League's officials live from Columbia to the Upstate, with fewer in the Lowcountry, Wentzky said. The growing number of schools (Oceanside Collegiate, Philip Simmons, the future opening of Lucy Beckham High in Mount Pleasant) puts additional pressure on the supply of officials.
"When you look at the number of officials coming in, it's not increasing as fast as we want it to," Wentzky said. "We just need more people who are interested."
Wentzky said the High School League and S.C. Football Officials Association recruits through college intramural leagues and first responders, such as firefighters and law enforcement. Referees are paid between $85 and $98 per game, plus 45 cents per mile for travel.
Recruiting more females, he said, is an "untapped resource."
"I think it is," he said, citing the success of Sarah Thomas, the first woman to referee in the NFL. "That has piqued a lot of interest. There's a lot of opportunities for females coming in. For many years, football was seen as a sport where you had to be a man to officiate, but that barrier's been broken down by ladies like Sarah Thomas and Roxann King."
'Can't be timid'
So what does it take to be a female referee in high school football?
A high school diploma and a record free of any felonies, says Wentzky — and a thick skin and willingness to learn, say Woods and King.
"You can't be timid," said King. "It's so exciting to be on the field, and they pay me to have fun. But you can't be timid."
Said Woods: "The best defense is to know the rules. Coaches will get upset, but I've never really had one be just completely irrational. You let them vent, tell them that this is the rule and how it was applied, and they tend to back off."
And being an official is more than a Friday night gig. There are recreation-league games on Wednesdays, JV and B-team games on Thursdays and varsity games on Friday. And in the offseason, there are clinics and classes to attend.
"Our officials start classes at the end of May and meet two or three times a week all summer," Wentzky said. "It's a big-time commitment just outside of the games."
Woods said she also watches a lot of game film.
"It took a little longer to develop instincts, to see things that other guys might see," she said. "I try to watch film, to see how plays develop and watch the positioning of other officials."
Woods and King have a simple message to women who are interested in refereeing: Go for it.
"The more people see it, the more common it becomes and less of a taboo," Woods said. "I would love to see it become just a totally natural thing."