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OUTLOOK 2024: Earning their stripes: School program trains new generation of referees

Feb. 2—WEST MIDDLESEX — Players dashed up and down the court, passing the basketball amongst themselves as a few occasionally tried shooting for the basket — with the action sometimes interrupted by shrill tweet of a referee's whistle.

The game, recently played in the West Middlesex high school gymnasium, featured students in seventh through 12th grades playing for fun instead of points.

But instead of adult referees dressed in black-and-white uniforms, the referees were also students — seniors Noah Schmitt, 17, and Donte Schuller, 18.

The game, even though it was played for fun, served as an educational experience for the two seniors, who are enrolled in West Middlesex schools' Sports Officiating class, a program aimed at training the next generation of referees.

For Schmitt and Schuller, the decision to enroll in the class came about due to their background in West Middlesex's sports programs, with Schmitt having played football, while Schuller played basketball.

"I've always loved sports, and this seemed like a good way to stay connected with athletics after graduation," Schmitt said.

Even though the students were already familiar with sports, they agreed it was a different experience knowing the full sets of rules and seeing things from the point of view of the referees instead of the athletes.

"There were times when I'd be playing and I wouldn't understand a call, but now I can look back and go, 'OK, that's why the ref did what they did,'" Schuller said.

Fellow student athlete Brooke Blaze, 18, is also enrolled in the course.

Having played basketball, Blaze said it was a little confusing at first learning the rules for different sports, such as football, but that she enjoyed the class and looked forward to refereeing games in the future.

"It's definitely worth it to go through the class, and there aren't enough refs right now," Blaze said.

At West Middlesex schools, the recent basketball game was organized during an RTI, or Response To Instruction period, a 24-minute stretch where students in seventh through 12th grades can do make-up work or receive additional support if needed.

If a student is caught up on their academics, they're able to use the RTI period to enjoy other activities, such as a club or sport, like the faux-basketball game designed to give the student referees some practice, West Middlesex High School Principal Tessa Simmons said.

Teaching the Sports Officiating class is physical education teacher Kelly Hoffman, who said the school district had previously offered the class more than 10 years ago.

When it came to restarting the program, Hoffman reached out to former physical education teacher Jerry Novosel, who was able to offer some advice on how to set up the class.

"He was able to share how they organized the class back then," Hoffman said of Novosel.

Hoffman also contacted Kim Hill, the officials correspondence secretary with the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletics Association.

Classroom material, including books and practice exams, was provided through the PIAA, while the rulebook was taught through the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Also involved in the program was local referee Lean Williams, who said there's currently a shortage of referees for games — something that was an issue for years, only to intensify with the COVID-19 pandemic.

One factor is the cost involved, from the test — which costs $40 — to the necessary equipment, which can range from $250 to $275, along with the cost for clearances.

The three required security clearances collectively cost about $60, Williams said.

Part of that cost issue can be mitigated by the Sports Officiating class, since students are able to take the test for free.

The PIAA also offers a program that can reimburse referees up to $300 if they save all theior receipts, Williams said.

Another issue for new referees is the time commitment involved.

Not only do referees spend a significant amount of time away from home, but most sports are held during the evenings and Saturdays — times when people would prefer to be off, Williams said.

If more referees were available, then it would be possible for the referees to rotate which evenings or weekends they would have to cover, potentially freeing up some of those times, Williams said.

"A lot of officials get into refereeing, but then they get burnt out because of the workload. If there were more people, then we could rotate shifts," Williams said.

It also takes a particular kind of person to be a referee in the first place, since a referee needs to be able to appreciate a sport while being willing to make a call regardless of the response they'll get from the athletes and the spectators.

"You really need thick skin to do this," Williams said. "People are nervous because no one wants to be in the middle of the court and make a call."

If more referees aren't found, eventually the sporting events themselves will have to be shuffled around according to the referees' availability — something that is already being seen.

In Mercer County, there are five permanent crews and one float-around crew of referees.

"In District 10, we've had several games get moved to Thursday and Saturday because there wasn't anybody that could cover them," Williams said.

However, Williams said there are plenty of benefits for the referees themselves.

In the case of younger refs, such as the West Middlesex students, the job can provide some extra spending money, while helping the students not only stay connected to athletics and stay in shape. It also can build their confidence.

The referees may also have a chance to set, and accomplish, their own personal goals.

Williams set a goal 20 years ago to referee a state game. She accomplished that in 2019, when Williams — the first woman in Mercer County to referee a state game — covered the 2A Championship girls basketball game between West Middlesex and Bellwood Antis in Hershey.

"It really is a craft. You have to go to meetings, stay in shape and other things, but you can stay in the community, you're still involved in sports and sometimes you reach your goals," Williams said.

Hoffman said she was unaware of any other school districts locally that were offering similar referee classes, although officials with Union Area School District in Lawrence County are planning such a class.

So far, the Sports Officiating course at West Middlesex Jr.-Sr. High School has covered football and basketball. Baseball is currently being taught, with plans to teach other sports, such as soccer, in the future, Hoffman said.

By completing the Sports Officiating course, West Middlesex students will be able to take the PIAA exam and become junior officials.

This will allow the students to referee games from third to sixth grades. Students who graduate from high school, or are 18 years or older, will be able to referee junior varsity and varsity games, Hoffman said.

"We don't have any students out refereeing games yet, but we will soon," Hoffman said.

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