If you follow prep sports in the Coastal Empire, chances are you’ve spotted Stephenie Clay in a high school gym.
She’ll likely be wearing a striped shirt with a whistle in hand.
Clay referees high-school basketball and volleyball — and in her spare time makes trips to Atlanta to officiate cricket, that thoroughly British sport.
“I really like cricket,” Clay said. “It’s different, but it’s an easy sport to officiate. I wish they would pick it up down here. They’ve got a lot of teams in the Atlanta area and in Florida, and I think they’d find kids here who could pick it up easily, especially those kids who have lived overseas.”
Truth is, even if you took cricket out of the mix, there are few sports Clay hasn’t umpired, officiated or refereed since her days as a student in the early 1980s at Concordia Lutheran University in Texas, where she played basketball and volleyball and ran track.
“Back then, playing sports was all we had to do,” she said, “either that or work.”
After graduating, Clay got even busier.
“I got married, had kids and we went overseas,” she said. “I worked for the government the whole time, but also did some coaching in the German American League and for (U.S. Army Europe).”
At the same time, Clay gave private lessons while officiating multiple sports in American military communities in Germany, Italy and Spain.
“They needed some American refs,” she said. “So, I went ahead and did it.”
Ask her how many games she’s been part of and she can’t tell you. What she can tell you is she’s not stopping.
“I’ll keep going until I feel like I can’t go no more,” Clay said recently. “I love it for the kids.”
A former high school basketball MVP and volleyball standout Clay earned academic and athletic scholarships.
The Clays — her husband Dale, son Dale and daughter Shontavia — came to Hinesville in the mid 1990s.
Stephenie Clay help–ed coach at both the old Hinesville and Snelson Golden middle schools, and for the Liberty County Recreation Department and AAU. The Clays’ children, meanwhile, were middle- and high-school sports standouts.
Her son played football, basketball and baseball and ran track at Bradwell. Shontavia played basketball and volleyball, and ran cross country and track at Liberty County High School after she gave up a try at playing quarterback in middle school.
Nowadays her son, who went to Rainy River Community College in Minnesota to play basketball, is coaching AAU teams in Baton Rouge. Shontavia got her criminal justice and homeland security degree from Savannah State on Dec. 7.
Mom, meanwhile, is still doing it all and she’s a proud grandmother. Her granddaughter LaShanta, 5, made it to the nationals in youth track — “She got first in everything she ran except the 200,” Clay said — while her grandson VaShawn, 10, plays basketball and football.
Despite all the accomplishments she said she tries to not brag on her children too much, maybe because she knows what it’s like to deal with parents.
“Parents do think they know it all and a lot of times they don’t,” she said. “But it’s that way with fans, too. You don’t let it get to you and you know they’re going to do that anyway. And some of the coaches will try to work you if you let them.”
Clay does gets paid for officiating high school and college sports, though she’s been known to donate her check back to a school if there’s a fundraising tournament for cancer relief or another important cause, and she’s officiated countless games for free for church leagues, the YMCA and others.
Still, one thing remains a constant from this woman who is so good at what she does she was named the top volleyball official in Georgia in 2003 by the Georgia High School Association.
As an official, you need to be professional. Be polite. Be sincere. And have thick skin.
“As an official, you have to be able to take corrective criticism,” Clay said. “You have to be able to be willing to go if they have camps or clinics, willing to better yourself.”
It’s also important to remain low-key.
“Don’t get into any kind of confrontations,” she said. “Instead, talk to children, talk to parents and coaches and be very communicative with them. That’s in all sports. And you have got to have a passion and a heart for the sport. Don’t do it for the money, do it for the children and do because it’s something you want to do.”
Not that there’s a sudden mob of people trying to become officials.
“It’s getting very hard to find and keep officials,” Clay said. “A lot of officials can’t take pressure from the parents, and if you can’t take pressure from parents or coaches, you don’t need to be doing it, period, because they will try to get to you, try to get you rattled.”
Still, Clay seems neither bothered nor rattled. Watch her work a game and she’s almost serene.
“I work with a wonderful group of officials,” Clay said, and getting razzed by coaches or irate moms is just part of the pressure put on all those who would attempt to enforce rules in sports.