Umpire Jerri Lucas Passion Goes the Distance

March 27, 2019, 12:01 p.m. (ET)

Reprinted with permission of The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Ill.

Jerri Lucas could have won the now-defunct television show "What's My Line?"

It's unlikely the celebrity judges would have guessed the Pontiac-based mother of three is a women's field hockey umpire who regularly works in the Big Ten Conference. The lengths the 43-year-old has gone to become a top-level umpire reflect her talent and willingness to endure long drives to places like Ann Arbor, Mich., and Columbus, Ohio. Usually Lucas' shortest commutes are four hours one way. Long drives allow her to "just kind of sort through your life, which is interesting." The Big Ten would fly her to matches, but that would take longer than driving.

"I can actually get out and back in my vehicle much faster than having to be at O'Hare two to three hours ahead, waiting for a flight," she says. 

Lucas wishes the hotbeds of field hockey were closer, but most are in New England. Others are cropping up in California, Colorado, Texas and Wisconsin. Big Ten matches are on Fridays and Sundays. Sometimes, Lucas leaves for a game on Thursday and returns late on Sunday. On Saturdays, she'll work a Division III match. Lucas, who also works as a substitute teacher, has been encouraged during her 11-year climb into the upper echelons of field hockey umpiring by her husband, Mike, who coaches cross country, swimming and track at Pontiac Township High School.

Jerri Lucas played for back-to-back state high school championship field hockey teams in Emmaus, Pa., where the sport is known as hockey. 

"I remember when we moved here, Michael is like, 'You can't call it that,'" she says. "He said, 'Jerri, the people who live here are going to think you're talking about ice hockey.'" 

Lucas played field hockey with her twin sister at Ball State before transferring to Kutztown University and later, Liberty, where she met her husband. Their kids are ages 14, 12 and 7. When she started umping, it was difficult to be away from her children.

"Now, I actually love going," she says. "It's like a break from reality. I get to talk to other adults and I'm doing something that I love."

A former field hockey coach, Lucas started umpiring after her first child was born because it didn't require as much time as coaching. Officiating requires the ability to sprint into position to make calls. She umpires 25 to 30 college games between August and November and has twice worked the NCAA Division I Final Four. In the off-season, she officiates high school club tournaments indoors and out. Plus, there are college tournaments in March and April. Each 70-minute match requires two umpires who are responsible for half of the field. Each team puts 11 players on the turf. 

"The sport itself is very similar to soccer," says Lucas, who can make as much as $400 a game if she keeps an eye on expenses.

Criticism from coaches and fans toward officials in field hockey is no different than in other sports. Lucas puts criticism in perspective by conceding that top college coaches know their job security depends on success.

"I take it in and you just sort of let it roll off," says Lucas, who has learned how to defuse angry coaches.

"First and foremost, our job is to keep the game safe. For me, my goal at the end of the game, literally, is that they didn't notice me."

By the same token, folks around Pontiac may not have noticed they have a top-flight umpire going the distance to create a level playing field in field hockey.