Dave Shepard gets the call back to State

Wyanet official had tournament debut canceled by COVID-19 in 2020

Wyanet's Dave Shepard officiated his first IHSA Boys State Tournament this year in Champaign. He has worked three IHSA State Girls Tournaments, including two championship games.

Dave Shepard was all set to make his debut officiating the IHSA boys basketball state tournament in March of 2020.

He was excited to earn the honor and anticipated walking onto the Carver Arena floor in downtown Peoria.

Then COVID hit, sending him and the teams home the night before the games were to begin.

Four years later, Shepard received a call back from the IHSA to work the 2024 State Finals, officiating the Class 2A semifinal between Byron and Benton.

The longtime official from Wyanet also worked the Class 3A third-place game between Richwoods and Mt. Zion.

“It was a great experience. The refs that are down there are top notch. Everything I got was positive, so I was real happy about that,” Shepard said. “It was really awesome. I enjoyed the whole thing. I got to ref Byron, which I already had a couple times, so I felt pretty comfortable there. Everything went well.”

The only thing that would have made the experience even better is if he got the assignment to work a state finals game. But he knows his time will come as it did for the girls state tournament a decade before, when he worked two finals in three trips.

“You get a little bummed out you didn’t get a final, but I also remembered it was my first year,” he said. “Six of us were not going to get finals. It just so happened that’s the way it turned out this year. So hopefully, next year or the year after, I’ll get a return trip and hopefully get a final that year. That’s the goal when you get down there.”

As disappointed as he was missing out on his first opportunity in 2020, Shepard hurt even more for the kids and teams that lost out.

“I was pretty confident that I was going to get another chance. Whereas the kids, everything has to fall into place,” he said. “I felt worse for the kids than I did for myself. But we were there. We were ready to go.

“That was the year Roanoke-Benson was there. To get down there and then asked to go home. It’s tough for a small school to get down there again. So I really felt bad for them. I felt bad for us, too, but it was tougher on the kids.”

Shepard was more than ready for the state tournament the second time around. There was no state tournament in 2021 when the IHSA held a limited COVID-19 season. Then 2022 was his scheduled “off” year, and last year he was sidelined with a scheduled midseason hip surgery.

He worked the Class 1A supersectional at Normal between Chicago Hope Academy and Heyworth for his final tuneup for Champaign.

Shephard’s not sure if every ref is going to get three state tournaments like they used to.

“It went from 24 officials to taking down 18, so it’s a little harder to keep everybody happy and work everybody in,” he said.

He said there’s really no differences between officiating the girls and boys state tournaments, other than there might be “more hype” in Champaign for the boys and the brightness on the floor of the State Farm Center.

“It’s amazing how bright it is on the floor. It’s as bright as day out there,” he said. “We’re there to try to do the best job we can do. To say one is more exciting than the other, I would never say that. I was blessed with that opportunity [girls], too.”

The IHSA does a good job in keeping you on top of your game, Shepard said.

“You have a pregame [meeting] and meeting at halftime, and then you have the postgame,” he said. “Trust me, they let you know anything and everything, good or bad. It’s all good, constructive criticism.”

Even in a big arena like the State Farm Center, Shepard said you can hear people yelling from the stands, but “it’s not like being in a regular high school gym where you can hear every single person.”

Shepard has heard a lot of comments thrown his way in 33 years officiating. One stands out the most.

“The funniest thing, I was doing a girls game probably 20 years ago and their dad yelled, ‘She didn’t fall down on her own. She’s been walking since she was 2,’ And I still laugh about that. That was probably the funniest thing I remember,” he said.

Shepard, 61, said he still was working his way back from his hip surgery this year.

“I’m not 100%, and I noticed that going to a college floor, which is 10 foot longer. Hopefully by next year when the reffing season starts, I’ll have a little more hop in the step,” he said.

With the pool of officials declining with older officials retiring soon and a lack of new ones coming in, Shepard encourages kids with a sports background going into college to give it a try.

“I think it’s a great part-time job, and do something you love to do and make money doing it,” he said. “The bottom line is we have to start supporting them. There’s going to be fewer and fewer, because there’s a lot of officials that are retiring this year.

“You’re always going to have people yelling or questioning you. I just hope that they realize to help the game, they’ve got to support the officials.”

• Kevin Hieronymus has been the Bureau County Republican sports editor since 1986. Contact him at khieronymus@shawmedia.com