PHOTO BY JIM COWSERT

Lellie Swords, who lives in the Dallas area, officiated her first “home game” as a Division I official, working No. 8 Duke’s 12-8 win over No. 18 Stanford at the Ford Center in Frisco, Texas, on Feb. 18.

Sidelines to Stripes: Swords' Journey to Officiating


Athletes and coaches often speak of a rush or an addiction to competition against the best when addressing what fuels them in their sport’s highest level. Indeed, psychologists have weighed in on depression that sometimes can afflict college graduates that have exhausted their NCAA eligibility sans the opportunity to continue their careers in a pro league.

Lellie Swords was no different, having spent her adult life competing in Division I women’s lacrosse: as a player at James Madison, an assistant coach at Cornell and Johns Hopkins and, finally, the inaugural head coach at Cincinnati from 2007-12.

So when family considerations necessitated a move away from college coaching, Swords responded by blazing perhaps the only trail available to her if she were to remain part of the elite-level games: she became an official.

“Being at that level for 20 years, I knew I was going to miss it,” Swords, a mother of three, said. “The best part of the last five years has been that I’ve gotten to see awesome games because I’m an official, and to be able to keep up with peers that I coached with or against for so long.”


"I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, so as I was transitioning out of coaching, I started asking other officials how do I take the next step. Getting on the path to college officiating was its own animal," Lellie Swords said.


Swords, who lives in the Dallas area, got to officiate her first “home game” as a Division I official, working No. 8 Duke’s 12-8 win over No. 18 Stanford at the Ford Center in Frisco, Texas, last week. There she made the impression for which officials in most sports strive.

“I didn’t really notice Lellie, which is a good thing,” Duke coach Kerstin Kimel said. “The shot clocks weren’t working well in the facility, but she had a calm demeanor. You could see her on the radio talking to the booth. We’re all trying to get used to this shot clock anyway, and here we had this technological problem. But she did a good job communicating with us what was going on. She handled herself well and put me at ease with regard to that situation.”

That empathy with coaches comes naturally for Swords, and it’s something Cardinal counterpart Amy Bokker has noticed over the years as Swords works games primarily in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.

“What I respect about her most is that communication — she’s very professional and unemotional when it could be a very emotional situation for a coach,” Bokker said.

“She also understands what game flow looks like and feels like.”








Swords actually started officiating lacrosse during her second year at Cincinnati. With a shortage of officials in southern Ohio, she and her staff helped to fill the void at the youth and high school levels. Bokker, formerly at George Mason, did the same in Northern Virginia, also to give back to the game.

“I didn’t get into it thinking I would do it all the time, but I had just had three kids. This would force me to get in shape, and I got paid to be in shape,” Swords said. “But I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, so as I was transitioning out of coaching, I started asking other officials how do I take the next step. Getting on the path to college officiating was its own animal.”

Swords worked a fall-ball game between San Diego State and Oregon in 2012, which she called a track meet and a good preview of the pace of play on a field of today’s Division I athletes. She gradually earned more college assignments before obtaining her “National” rating in May 2015.

“I understand the game well, having been on the other side,” Swords said. “If I have a team more than once, I know what their offensive sets are and the positioning I need to be in.”

Swords also understood that ascending to the Division I level meant increased travel and a return to a parental balancing act with her husband, Kyle. But she takes full advantage of the flexible scheduling officials have, working games on the weekends so she can raise her kids while serving as the director and varsity girls’ coach at Highland Park High School during the week.

“At Cincinnati, I missed most of [our kids’] first five years. Now, it’s a tough three months, and then I’m home,” Swords said. “One of the beauties of officiating is that we get our schedules in November and December, so we can piece that puzzle together. I can block off the days I need to. A college coach — it’s January through May, plus recruiting until Aug. 1.”




PHOTO BY JIM COWSERT

Swords (center) speaks with Stanford coach Amy Bokker and Duke coach Kerstin Kimel prior to their game, which was part of the annual Patriot Cup.


Swords isn’t alone as a former Division I coach turned official. Jill Malko, the first head coach at Cal until her 2007 resignation, and Kirsten Kruhm, a former assistant at Duke, likewise have gone from roaming the sidelines to managing them. It’s a path that offers much to college lacrosse alumni: additional income, flexible scheduling, and a way to give back to and stay connected with the game at the same time. And coaches agree it’s a path worth following.

“We have shortage of people who are really keen to game,” Kimel said. “To have played and coached, you have understanding of game — you can keep up with the pace and the trends, and have a keen feel that some of your counterparts don’t.”

“I would love to see more former players and coaches included in the officials ranks,” Bokker said. “To meet in the center circle (before a game) and see people who have coached, it would be exciting, because you know there’s a mutual respect and understanding for communication throughout the game. We need more younger, passionate, fit players as officials.”