This time, however, that referee walked through a tunnel of lacrosse sticks as she left the field, as the Spring Lake and Northview middle school girls lacrosse teams joined together to celebrate the career of Nancy Lapekas.
After the ceremony, Lapekas received a standing ovation by all in attendance for her years of service, and she was handed a bouquet of flowers that were fittingly worked through a lacrosse stick.
"I was not expecting that at all," an emotional Lapekas said after the ceremony. "I was expecting cupcakes or cookies and maybe a few group photos, but that was very touching. I love this Spring Lake lacrosse community, and it's been a lot of fun teaching the sport to so many young athletes."
Lapekas has served as a referee in various sports for 52 years, but that evening's contests would be her last, as she announced her retirement, effective June 1.
"Oh, boy, what a run," she added. "I can't even count up the number of games I've done over the years, but it's probably around the 1,500 range. That's just lacrosse, too; I'm sure if you add them all together it'd be quite the number.
"I started out referring for my physical education major in 1966 and earned a lot of money for college in the process. I just kept with it after that. I started reffing volleyball and competitive cheer, too. I retired from those two sports a few years ago, but I just couldn't give up lacrosse."
The added title of grandmother to Lapekas' job description made things a little more challenging for the veteran ref, but she still managed to log some miles just to referee local lacrosse.
"Four years ago, I moved to Ypsilanti to be near my daughter, and help her raise her children," she added. "During the sports seasons, I would come out to West Michigan and stay with people when I was reffing weekend tournaments.
"It was a big commitment, and I just turned 70, so it felt like the time was right to retire. It was an extremely difficult decision to hang it up. I really thought I could go one more year, especially because we don't have enough refs and it's hard to recruit new referees now."
FIELD OF STICKS
With an upbringing that included more sports than Barbie dolls, Lapekas was drawn to athletic competition at an early age and that carried over into her collegiate athletic career, as well.
"I grew up with three brothers and there were no girls in my neighborhood, so I just started playing sports," she said. "I went on to play goalie at Central Michigan University in field hockey in 1966. They didn't have lacrosse back then, but field hockey was the closest thing to it at the time.
"Lacrosse is a lot faster and involves a lot more coordination. You have to be able to pass, catch and shoot with accuracy. It really is a great sport, and I'm happy to see so many younger generations falling in love with it."
Her passion for lacrosse fueled Lapekas to form the West Michigan Lacrosse Association 14 years ago, which helped assign officials to games for many local schools. Her vision was to improve local officiating, while inspiring more youth athletes to give the sport a try.
"It's grown so much," she said. "I love being around the little ones that are just learning the sport. I have a passion for the sport, and when I see them start to understand the sport and enjoy it as much as I do, it's really rewarding.
"I call them my babies because I get to help them learn the sport when they are little, and they eventually grow up to be great players in high school and even college. It's been a lot of fun to be a part of and I'm excited to see where the sport goes from here on a local scale."