MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (May 28, 2017) – It was 7:30 p.m. and Al Cleary didn’t want to be late for his match.

Never mind that the match was at 8 p.m. and the walk would only take a minute. Also, the court was running behind schedule. The referee working his first USA Volleyball Open National Championships didn’t want to leave anything to chance.

“Everyone has told me stories about how (the Opens) are fun. It is different, of course, than juniors,” Cleary said. “I have not had any challenges so far, which I think is great. Everyone seems great. So far everything is good, so I hope it stays the same for the rest of the tournament.”

Cleary started playing volleyball as a child in Jamaica. He followed his mother to the United States when he was 20 and continued playing recreationally. He also joined the U.S. Army and began a career that would take him to Texas, Alaska and, most recently Iowa. He also did multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Through it all, there was volleyball. When he was in Texas, he started officiating high school volleyball. Another official suggested he referee for USA Volleyball. After working his way up, he was selected to work his first Open Nationals.

What advice would he give someone thinking about becoming a referee?

“It’s about being open. I’m a sucker for feedback,” he said. “Be open. Get all the critique you can take. Don’t take it personally. But take all the things they tell you and try to work them in.

“Once you love the game, it’s so much easier to transfer into (being an official). Going from a player to officiating, the hardest thing for me was learning to blow the whistle.”

As he embarks on what he thinks will be his final year in the Army, he is hoping to have more time for volleyball.