High School Football

She wasn't trying to break barriers; she just wanted to officiate the game she loves

Izzy Cardinale looks toward the sideline chain crew while officiating a game between Blaine Middle School and Meridian Middle School Sept. 28 in Laurel.
Izzy Cardinale looks toward the sideline chain crew while officiating a game between Blaine Middle School and Meridian Middle School Sept. 28 in Laurel. eabell@bhamherald.com

Squalicum High School senior Izzy Cardinale has always had a special spot in her heart for the national anthem, particularly before a football game.

“I love this country,” she said. “I love it more than anything, and I love standing up for the national anthem. It’s something I’ve always loved to watch, with all the players on each side and the officials in the middle of the field with their hats over their hearts.”

Yes, even the officials have caught the 17-year-old’s eye. Her father, Joe Cardinale, has officiated games for “as long as I can remember.” He has worked area high school and middle school games with the Whatcom Skagit Island Football Officials Association for 11 years and area college football games the past three seasons.

But the anthem played before a Sept. 16 game at La Conner meant much more to Izzy, because that time she was “out there actually doing it.”

I was really nervous, but I settled down about halftime. I finally got into the roll of it.

Izzy Cardinale, official in the WSIFOA

Though the association has had a few other females officiate sub-varsity games in recent years, retiring WSIFOA assigner of officials Larry LaBree said, Izzy became the first to wear the stripes for a high school varsity game in the region that evening.

The importance of the moment was not lost on anyone in the Cardinale family.

“I was in tears during the anthem,” mother Shannon Cardinale said. “I ran to the bathroom before the game, and I couldn’t find it at La Conner. It’s like hidden. I came back, and they were doing the national anthem, and I stopped, and then all of a sudden I saw her there with her hat over her heart, and I literally started tearing up. It had been a rough week, and it was so special to see her out there. I knew how much it meant to her.”

‘Football is my life’

If ever there was someone meant to become the first female to officiate a WSIFOA game, it’s Izzy – not because she lives to smash through barriers or fight for women’s rights, but because she’s a huge football fan and she’s confident and strong enough to do just about anything she sets her mind to.

“Football is my life,”said Izzy, a self-proclaimed daddy’s girl. “My life has always revolved around football. I don’t know a single Sunday during the fall I haven’t been watching football. The memories I have come up on Facebook, they’re almost always about football. Six years ago, I was at Civic Stadium watching Squalicum play football. Most of my memories are about football, and honestly, it’s what I do best.”

She played the game as a seventh-grader at Shuksan Middle School, earning Lineman of the Week awards three times while playing right guard on offense and defense for the Cougars.

But a year later, she knew her playing days were over.

Honestly, it’s not the money. It’s going out and doing something you enjoy.

Izzy Cardinale, official in the WSIFOA

“I was (4-foot-11), and I realized I was done growing,” Izzy said. “The boys around me were still growing.”

She tried other sports, such as soccer, volleyball and diving, as an underclassman at Squalicum. But she never found anything that spoke to her the way football did, especially after she said she blew out her knee as a freshman. Some of her favorite high school memories have been hanging out with her friends in the stands at Civic Stadium watching the Storm.

During her junior year, her father encouraged her to consider officiating football games for the Boys & Girls Club so she could “make a couple hundred bucks.”

“Something in my mind clicked,” Izzy said. “It was like, ‘Hey, this is something that I love. It’s something special that I can do, and it’s something nobody else in my school does.’ It was definitely outside my comfort zone, but I said, ‘Why not?’ 

After a spring full of Boys & Girls Club games, Izzy decided to try working for the WSIFOA this fall.

Rushed into work

Joe is the first to admit his daughter probably shouldn’t have done the La Conner game Sept. 16 – not because of her gender, age or any other physical quality, but because of her lack of experience officiating games. Her varsity debut came in just her third week on the field working for the WSIFOA.

“She’s doing an awesome job right now, but there is no way she should be doing varsity games,” said Joe, a vice president on the WSIFOA board. “There are a lot of inexperienced people we’re putting on varsity games, and we’re rushing them all. I didn’t get my first varsity game until my second year, and that was pretty late in the season. Now, we’ve got guys that their first game is a varsity game.”

LaBree said the association has only 55 officials this year to cover all the high school and middle school games played in Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties, meaning a number of young officials, such as Izzy, have been rushed to the varsity level out of necessity.

“We’re in desperate need of officials – young, old, male, female,” Joe said. “We need people.”

The WSIFOA trains its officials with weekly preseason sessions and continues to educate with weekly or biweekly midseason meetings to discuss the rules, break down film and deliver grades. Crews also spend time before games reviewing rules and situations to make sure everyone is on the same page and ready for kickoff.

Usually, the association likes to start new officials on middle school games or high school ‘C’ and junior varsity games, where there’s not as much pressure, creating an opportunity to season them for at least a year before moving them to the varsity level.

Theoretically, she should not have done a varsity game yet, but she did. As I always tell her, if you get the chance, do it.

Joe Cardinale, official in the WSIFOA and father of fellow official Izzy Cardinale

“There’s a lot of training involved,” Izzy said. “I realize that I’m new at this. I’m not perfect at it. Our 10- and 15-year guys are still learning how to become better officials. You just have to be open to learning.”

For Izzy, that has meant being mature beyond her years and not only admitting she has a lot to learn but understanding how she learns best.

Izzy said she has a learning disability that hurts with memorization, making it difficult for her to read a rules manual and fully digest it. Sometimes, it takes looking to YouTube or Hudl – an online service teams use to analyze and trade game films the WSIFOA also uses to help its officials learn – for video instruction about what certain fouls look like and to help her learn proper mechanics. Sometimes, it takes a little more.

“I need to actually be able to visualize it,” Izzy said. “When Larry Musselwhite describes a play in class and puts it on the white board, what I do in my mind is I put Squalicum’s football team on the field. Garrett Sorenson is our quarterback, so I put him on the field in my mind, and Damek Mitchell is a receiver, so I put him on the field. That’s how I see it and how it connects for me. ... It’s a lot easier for me than seeing X’s and O’s on the board.”

But even with all her training, Izzy knows she probably still should be waiting to officiate her first varsity game.

“To be honest, when I saw I had a varsity game, I was like, ‘Heck yeah!’ ” Izzy said. “I mean, I was excited, but at the same time, I was like, ‘Do I know enough? Can I make these calls?’ You just have to have confidence in yourself that, ‘Yes, I can make these calls, and I have my crew. They’ve got my back.’ 

Life in a ‘man sport’

Though Izzy is a bit of a trailblazer in the WSIFOA, she’s not the first female to wear the stripes on a football field. She says she looks up to full-time NFL official Sarah Thomas, Buffalo Bills quality control special-teams coach Kathryn Smith, the first female full-time coach in the NFL, and Catherine Conti, the first female official in the Pacific-12 Conference.

“It’s very rare, but it’s also really cool,” Izzy said. “Football is a man sport – it’s a man sport. But hey, I’ve done just about everything in it, and I’ve done it well.”

In fact, Izzy said she hopes if her officiating career continues to progress she can one day join Conti in the Pac-12.

She said she hasn’t experienced anything on a football field to dissuade her from that goal.

“The guys have been so supportive with it,” Izzy said, “which I really appreciate. It’s hard going out there. I’m not near the size of them. I’m really little; I always have been, but not around them. I felt the same as them.”

Like many beginning officials, Izzy started as a head linesman, meaning she works at the line of scrimmage on the side with the chains. That puts her in the thick of the action and well within earshot of one team’s coaches and players on the sideline.

The stripes should always be respected, no matter who’s wearing them.

Izzy Cardinale, official in the WSIFOA

“Most of them call me ‘Ms. Official,’ ” Izzy said. “ ‘Ms. Official, am I on the line?’ There were a few times where they said, ‘Mr. Official’ out of habit, but then they’d say, ‘Oh sorry, Ms. Official.’ ... I’ve had one player come and shake my had and say, ‘You did a really nice job today.’ I actually had (coach) Curt Kramme from Lynden compliment me in a big way and say he’d like to see me out doing a Lynden game when I made it up to Friday nights. That was after my first scrimmage. He said I did a really good job.”

And most importantly, she’s felt her officiating peers have had her back. Of course, it may have helped that many knew her long before she stepped onto a field, having watched her grow up as longtime friends of the family.

Joe joked the reason Musselwhite, the head referee for the La Conner game, liked having her on his crew so much is because “he finally had someone he was taller than.”

“My crew was awesome,” Izzy said. “They had my back every single minute of that game. If I had any questions, they were right there. Larry Musselwhite, my white hat, he’s awesome and really close to our family. He had my back 100 percent through it.”

About the only difficulty she’s had being a female official, Izzy said, is finding pants that fit properly. Not surprisingly, with so few women officiating football, uniforms are made to fit men. But Shannon helped Izzy take a couple of women’s black slacks and attach a white stripe down the side.

‘One of the guys’

After her first varsity game, when officials from all over the association gathered at Bob’s Burgers and Brews for a weekly postgame meal and festivities, Musselwhite stood and announced that Izzy was the first female to officiate a varsity game for the association. A few weeks later, he presented her with a ceremonial flipping coin for having worked a varsity game, as is tradition within the WSIFOA.

“I was like, ‘I really did do that,’ ” Izzy said. “How cool is that? I can say I really did do that, and I’m proud of myself for doing it, because it’s so far outside my comfort zone.”

Nobody was prouder than her father, who said the first thing he did after completing the game he was officiating a few miles away in Oak Harbor was call to see how Izzy did in La Conner.

“It’s exciting to see passion back in her about something,” Shannon said. “It’s exciting to see something in her life that she’s really happy with and excited about.”

I present myself as confident in what I’m doing. ... You have to be strong enough that everyone in the stands can see you’re confident in what you’re doing.

Izzy Cardinale, official in the WSIFOA

And it could help her down the line, whether she continues to officiate or not.

“I told her next year, you’re going to be applying for colleges,” Joe said. “How many young ladies that are going to be applying for college are going to say I was on the dance team or I was on the cheer team or I was on the drill team or in the band? How many are going to say I was a high school football official? How many? That alone should make them look at you and say, ‘Wow, this young lady was willing to step into a very male-dominated arena.’ I’m sure there have been others elsewhere around the country, but I bet not that many.”

Izzy would definitely recommend more try if football is their passion – regardless of their gender.

“I would tell them not to be afraid to be one of the guys,” Izzy said. “When you’re out there, you are one of the guys. You have to have confidence in yourself, but you learn so much about yourself and the game and how to work with other people. ... Follow your heart and follow your gut. If this is something you think you might love, you just might. I know I do.”

Wear the stripes

The Whatcom Skagit Island Football Association is always seeking more interested officials for area high school and middle school football games and will provide training to help prepare them.

Contact: Pete Lockhart by email at petelockhart@gmail.com or Larry LaBree at 360-927-9913 or email larrybabree@gmail.com

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