'He's all business': Official Ray Leverknight balances integrity, humor on way to soccer hall of fame

Nov. 15—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Soccer officials have a goal of not becoming the story during games. Staying anonymous means a referee does their job right to stay out of the spotlight.

Due to his knowledge of the rulebook, uncommon humor and tedious attention to detail, referee Ray Leverknight stood out for all of the right reasons. His lengthy and impactful resume helped Leverknight earn one of five spots in the inaugural class to be inducted into The Tribune-Democrat High School Soccer Hall of Fame.

"I'm quite honored and quite humbled," Leverknight described his reaction to the news of his induction. "I stand on the shoulders of lots of my mentors."

Leverknight, Fred Galiote, Casey Gallaher, Ryan Henry and Wilfred "Buddy" Nicholson will be inducted on Thursday and be introduced to the crowd at Greater Johnstown High School's Trojan Stadium between the 13th annual Santa Fund Soccer Classic girls (5:30 p.m.) and boys (7:30 p.m.) contests.

A soccer official since 1991, Leverknight's dedication to his craft paid off over the years. He officiated the 2011 PIAA Class 1A boys' and 2017 Class 3A girls' soccer championship games. Being called to referee in the biggest soccer games of the season were a thrill to Leverknight.

"It's an extremely large, one of the biggest, soccer fields you will ever be on," Leverknight described Hersheypark Stadium, site of the PIAA soccer title games until 2022. "You get introduced with the teams on the field.

"Afterwards, the teams hang around for the medal ceremony. The officials are sent back. The games are assessed when you get to the state level."

A PIAA soccer official for more than 25 years, Leverknight serves as the Laurel Highlands Chapter rules interpreter. He is the Richland American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) regional board member and instructor. The Laurel Highlands Futbol Club secretary also trains new officials.

"I like instructing," Leverknight said. "I'm a certified instructor, so I teach the new volunteers, whether they're teenagers or parents, the art of officiating. It's really not so much calling the game like balls and strikes. We try managing the atmosphere of the match, what goes on between the lines and outside the lines."

Leverknight has earned the respect of area coaches over the past couple of decades.

"As I got into coaching, he became instead of my mentor, my tormentor because he's tough," former Forest Hills boys soccer coach Keith Pesto joked.

"What's great about Ray, his sense of humor is really a bonus because he's all fun and games until the whistle blows.

"Then he's all business. It's a very important thing to him that people do soccer right, both in the good sportsmanship end of things and the technical phase. He does well because he's comfortable with the rules back and forth. There's a lot of referees out there who think 'It's the right call because I made it.' Ray is 'I'm making it because it's the right call.' "

When Leverknight was officiating a game, coaches felt at ease.

"Ray's been doing it for a long time," Pesto said. "You know he's authoritative. If someone foot faults on a throw-in, he's not going to call it one time and miss it the next time. He's going to see it every single time. When you see it's Ray in the striped shirt, both coaches say, 'Ah, good. It's going to be a well-called game. Things are not going to get out of hand. We're going to have a good day, win or lose.' It's a great thing to see Ray walk onto the pitch because it inspires confidence. You always respect the ref, but it's not a forced thing with him.

"It just comes natural."

Maintaining control of the game is one of Leverknight's priorities.

"The phrase that we use is officials are keepers of the flame," Leverknight said.

"With age and experience comes what to call and what not to call. You referee a high school game different than you would a 10U AYSO game."

As the years have gone on, Leverknight has learned less is more.

"When you first start, you want to call every last foul," Leverknight said. "When the ball goes off the field, you want to blow the whistle. When it's obvious it's out, you don't have to blow the whistle and say it's out. Knowing when to interfere and when not to interfere comes with experience."

Jake Oswalt is a copy editor for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @TheWizOfOz11.