All eyes are on the coin as referee Jeff Mertzel, left, flips to determine whether Cony or Mt. Ararat will start the game with possession of the ball for the first game of the winter sports season on Jan. 11 in Augusta. Mertzel said about 40 percent of basketball referees who officiated in central Maine last winter have chosen not to return this year. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

For months, high school sports officials in Maine’s 16 counties have held their breath every time the Maine Department of Education updates its color-coded health advisory for schools, waiting to see if their teams would be allowed to practice and play games.

Now that state officials and the Maine Principals’ Association have determined that the color-coded system no longer applies to athletics, clearing the way for teams throughout the state to play, school officials may face another problem – a shortage of game officials.

The number of game officials available to cover high school events has dropped significantly this winter during the coronavirus pandemic – one official in the Maine Principals’ Association estimates it’s a 30 percent decline for all sports – and there is concern that there won’t be enough to cover all games once all schools start playing.

That hasn’t been a problem until now because four counties – Androscoggin, Cumberland, Oxford and York – were designated as “yellow,” which means schools in those counties haven’t even been allowed to practice. Now, that’ll no longer be the case, and the people who assign officials are worried.

“I do have a concern,” said Jeff Benson, the MPA’s commissioner of officials. “We want to make sure we can cover the amount of games schools have. We won’t know what that will be like until we know who’s going to be playing and when they’re playing. We will do our very best to make sure we can service all the schools.”

Each winter sport has been affected, some more than others.

In southern Maine, for example, the Western Maine Board of Approved Basketball Officials has seen a loss of 50 officials from last year, down to about 174. Dennis Crowe, the assigner for the Western Maine board, added that “there aren’t many days that go by when I don’t get a call from an official saying, ‘I’ve changed my mind and I don’t want to do it this year.'”

Crowe said the board has enough officials right now to cover games in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Oxford, Sagadahoc and York counties. But, he quickly added, “We are right on the edge. If 10 more officials get sick, or hurt … We’re right at the point where it could be tight.”

In central Maine, veteran official Jeff Mertzel said about 40 percent of last year’s basketball officials chose not to return this year. Mertzel, who serves as a liaison to the MPA’s media committee, said there may be nights when the same crew of officials has to do both varsity and junior varsity games.

But, he added that right now he thinks the central Maine board has enough officials to cover the games that are scheduled, as long as officials aren’t sidelined by positive COVID-19 tests or contract tracing.

“It’s a very fine line, but I think right now we’re OK,” said Mertzel. “The times that we’re going to be in trouble is what do we do if we officiate in a game and a player ends up being positive (for COVID-19)? If that happens too many times, I think there will be a concern as to how we will cover a game.”

“You hope,” he added, “that you don’t have a year with a lot of injuries or illness.”

Mertzel, 52, and a special education teacher at Oak Hill High, noted that the five regional boards of officials across the state have agreed to work together to make sure they have enough officials to cover all games. And most games, he said, are now being covered by two officials rather than three.

Don Gray is one of the basketball officials who opted out this year. He is 70 years old, lives in Farmington, and primarily covers middle school or junior varsity games.

He said he misses the social interaction on the court but couldn’t risk bringing the virus home to his family.

“I just decided it was in my best interests and my family’s best interest that I don’t work,” he said. “It’s pretty simple really. It is my social life to some extent and I miss it. But it was not worth the risk to do it.”

In hockey, the number of registered on-ice officials has dropped from a little over 80 last year to about 52, according to Ron Kramer, the secretary/treasurer for the Maine chapter of the National Ice Hockey Officials Association.

Still, Kramer said the association is in a good place because of the shortened high school schedule, which has been reduced from a maximum of 18 games to 12.

“My gut feeling is we will be able to eke by and cover all the games,” he said. “The challenge is maybe on a Saturday when we have youth level games. Many officials do college and youth hockey games and Saturday might be a tough day. But we … just don’t know yet.”

Kramer, who also officiates high school soccer games, has opted out this winter. He is 63.

“I’ve opted not to (officiate) for health and safety concerns for my family,” he said. “Other members who opted out are first responders, others work in health care or in long-term care facilities. They opted not to work because they were concerned they potentially could be bringing the (COVID-19) virus back with them.”

Other sports are in slightly better shape. Susan Hartnett, the MPA cheering official liaison, said they have about 25 officials statewide and that about 10 have opted out.

Cheering has gone to virtual competitions this year. To compensate, they will now use only four officials – one lead and three judges for individual categories – instead of the traditional six.

“We don’t have a problem,” said Hartnett. “We’ve assigned all the officials for the year.”

Swimming is also holding only virtual meets, with two officials. Scott Morrison, the Edward Little coach and the MPA swimming officials liaison, said they have about 60 officials available statewide, whereas in the past they would have around 100. But because of the shortened schedule and reduction of officials at each meet, they should be able to cover all meets.

Kramer and others believe the pandemic has once again placed a spotlight on a growing issue: recruiting and retaining high school officials. “This started a decade ago,” he said.

He noted that only two new officials have joined the association this year. Crowe said only about five newcomers joined the basketball board. He is also the assigner for soccer and noted that they had no new recruits in the fall.

“You take a year like this and maybe you won’t get the number of new officials you would normally get,” said Mertzel. “What effect will that have two or three years from now?”


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