Saving Stripes Part 2: The Next Generation of MHSAA Officials

After highlighting the factors contributing to the growing MHSAA referee shortage and how it is negatively affecting high school sports in part 1 of “Saving Stripes”, part 2 spotlights the next generation of officials, young and old, and how they are hoping to make an impact and help reverse this crisis.

“We need people to come and join our ranks. This is a great opportunity to give back to the community because without us as officials, unfortunately, they can’t have their games because we can’t officiate with numbers that just create havoc for us,” said MHSAA official of 43 years Mark Stewart.

With the MHSAA losing nearly 5,000 registered officials since 2009, attempting to fully state high school games with refs has become increasingly difficult.

“We’re still seeing the decline just because of the aging of officials. It’s making teams have to suffer a little bit because we have to reschedule games or not have the games on the normal nights that they would like to play the games,” said Northern Sports Officials Association President Bill Parker.

Here in northern Michigan, the average age of an official is 62. With more and more deciding to hand up their stripes and whistles after countless years of service, recruiting the next generation of referees is crucial.

“The ideal official is probably someone who’s early to mid twenties. That gives us the longevity that we can hold onto these folks for a while, but it also gives them enough life experience or a little bit that they can move right into a position without a lot of training and management. But we’ll certainly take anybody we can get,” said MHSAA Assistant Director and Head of Officials Brent Rice.

It’s never too late to sign up. Just ask 55-year-old Tim Simon, a Remus native and Traverse City resident, who is in his fourth year as a registered MHSAA official.

“I got started certainly out of a need. You hear four years ago that they’re in need of officials and and umpires. But I think there’s enough people out there that have time to to umpire and referee or officiate. And certainly they just need to, you know, give us some time and give the kids some time,” said Simon.

The MHSAA is working overtime to organize recruitment campaigns, but you don’t have to look very hard to find young people with a passion for officiating. Ferris State University is just one example of a “hot-spot” for up-and-coming referees.

The University’s recreation program currently employs 28 student officials. Some are first-timers, like Ava Lukitsch, a freshman who is in her first couple semesters as an intramural volleyball official.

“I wasn’t playing on any club or team sport coming into college, so being able to ref was close enough to playing it. It gives me a mental break from studying and stuff, so it’s a nice physical activity to do with people I like. I know a lot of people and students here really enjoy playing in IM Leagues, so I mean, we need us,” said Lukitsch.

Others already have a handful of years of experience under their belts. Students like Allen Mcneal and Ryder Rodriguez are just a couple of young referees looking to make officiating at least a part-time career in their future.

“Once they’re done with high school sports, they [students] don’t know where to go. Because not a lot of people go into collegiate sports and pro sports, so they just want to stay active and it’s another way,” said Rodriguez, a junior at Ferris State.

“When you know that you have someone younger, they’re able to connect to the students and then they’re like, I kind of like that official or I kind of want to get into it. So it shows that there’s some other positivity to it.”

“It’s just a great way to be involved and still play sports. My plan is to keep reffing for I don’t know how long, maybe seven, ten years and keep working my way up until I get to the college level. I’m just always getting better, you know, no official is perfect. I’m always going to continue to work, get better. That’s always what we focus on, trying to produce the best refs we can,” said Ferris State senior Mcneal.

Time will only tell if it’s too late to save the stripes. But as of now, the future pf officiating is in good hands.