May 14, 2008

When Greg Niewieroski witnesses a questionable call in a lacrosse game, he can reflect on last summer. The Syracuse attackman might argue, but he knows what it's like on the other end. And in his officiating experience, the debaters were more intimidating than he is.

Niewieroski spent last summer at a New York prison in charge of recreations, a job that included umpiring baseball games between the inmates. He called balls and strikes, an ordinary task that becomes extraordinary when considering the pitcher and batter aren't little leaguers but instead, in some cases, drug dealers and gang members.

"It's a whole different world in there," he said. "I didn't know what to expect at all."

Niewieroski is a starter for the Orange as the team prepares for the second round of the NCAA tournament. He'll likely find Syracuse's opponent a lot less threatening than the Cape Vincent Correctional facility.

Niewieroski said he was never scared given the security presence in the prison. His father, also named Greg, is a correctional officer at the facility. The younger Niewieroski wants to become a teacher and lacrosse coach, and his father thought summer work at the prison would be good preparation.

"If you can handle these guys," Greg Sr. said, "you can handle anyone."

In a baseball game early in Niewieroski's summer, one of the inmates hit a deep, bases-loaded blast that Niewieroski stopped to admire. It was late in the game -- a pivotal juncture, according to the elder Niewieroski -- and a play awaited at the plate. The problem was Niewieroski was still in awe of the hit and lost his focus. The player at home was evidently safe, but Niewieroski missed the play. He called "out" at first, before the other recreational directors changed the call.

"There were probably 300 or 400 people there, and they saw the guy was safe by a mile," Greg Sr. said. "From there on out, he never lost his focus."

This is not to say he avoided controversy. Naturally, the inmates complained about close calls throughout the summer. But after years on the lacrosse field, Niewieroski became adept in handling the criticism.

"From watching referees my whole life, you learn to make a call and stick with it," Niewieroski said. "So I tried to stick with it and not let them change my mind."

Greg Sr. said when most young people arrive to work like Greg did, they ask for a different job. Usually, they wanted something with less confrontation. Not Niewieroski, who refused to shy away.

The job was not limited to umpiring, extending to responsibilities of recreational directors such as organizing basketball and soccer games. His role was to keep the inmates occupied, a necessary task in the overcrowded facility.

"It avoids them from creating a major disturbance," Greg Sr. said.

Niewieroski said he plans to return this summer if the opportunity presents itself. If nothing else, it gives him perspective. Some of the inmates are his age. Niewieroski interacts with them, but when the work day concludes, he goes home.

"When you're leaving, you think, 'those guys aren't leaving,'" Niewieroski said. "They're staying for years. It's crazy when you go there and think of it like that."

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