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John's Journal: Officials Shortage Means ‘We’re Hanging By A Thread’

In Southeast Minnesota, Basketball Schedules Are Being Disrupted

Posted: Thursday, January 12, 2023 - 4:51 PM


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(Left to right) Mike Klavetter of Plainview, Lee Meyer of Kasson and Dean DeBoer of Byron worked a rescheduled girls-boys varsity doubleheader in Cannon Falls.

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It’s no secret that high school sports are facing a serious issue when it comes to officials. The hard truth is that there aren’t enough people certified to officiate, and that’s the case in Minnesota as well as around the nation.

A microcosm of the situation can be found in southeast Minnesota during the current basketball season. Schools, conferences and officials, most of them members of the Rochester Area Officials Association, are scrambling to pair officials with games in the hopes of ensuring that every team will be able to play every scheduled game. Nothing is guaranteed.

“We’re hanging by a thread,” said Jared Butson, a veteran multi-sport official who assigns officials for girls and boys varsity basketball games through the RAOA. “It’s pretty bad.”

Games are in the process of being juggled for the remainder of the 2022-23 season, while officials, schools and conferences cast a glance into remedies for future seasons.

One sign of change was seen Tuesday evening when the girls and boys basketball teams from Pine Island and Cannon Falls played a varsity doubleheader in Cannon Falls. Originally, the boys were scheduled to play in Pine Island while the girls were to meet in Cannon Falls. The teams will play a similar doubleheader in Pine Island later in the season. The changes were made because there weren’t enough available officials to work varsity games at both sites.

Winter weather has always thrown wrenches into scheduling games, but when there aren’t enough officials it’s a volatile double-whammy.

“With weather, you know snow will eventually melt,” said Pine Island athletic director Lisa Myran-Schutte. “Now we’re in a nice week and we still had chaos.”

Other schools in southeast Minnesota are moving games and adding girls/boys doubleheaders this winter in an effort to avoid cancelling contests. Looking long-term, other possible remedies are being considered.

Butson has asked five conferences in that part of the state – the Hiawatha Valley League, Three Rivers, Gopher, Southeast and Big Nine – to hold discussions on a conference level and consider possible solutions for the 2023-24 season and beyond.

Among those possibilities are …

--Each conference selects two Tuesday nights and does not schedule any conference games on those dates. If all five conferences did so, that would loosen up 10 Tuesday nights.

--Two schools in the same conference schedule a girls/boys varsity doubleheader on a Friday night, rather than playing the girls game at one school and boys at the other.

--When weather forces games to be rescheduled, schools are advised to consider playing Wednesday evenings or late afternoons, even if that means varsity only or JV/varsity competition.

Wednesday has traditionally been a night when games are rarely scheduled, but more games and not enough available officials on Tuesdays and Fridays could mean more Wednesday games in the future … along with Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

The RAOA membership consists of about 85 officials who can work varsity basketball games. That’s simply not enough.

“People have asked, ‘What do you need to make it work?,’ ” Butson said. “We need 20 more officials who are varsity officials.”

Butson has asked schools and conferences several times this winter to move games away from nights when there aren’t enough officials to cover them all. His emails to schools in the region paint a clear picture …

--“I realize this is not the email you wanted from me today.”

 --"I need 4 JV/Varsity game combinations moved to a different date or a double varsity, something. Yes, I'm 13 varsity officials short for the date as of now.”   

--"Yes, I'm 17 varsity officials short for the date as of now. I'm hoping to have the Minneapolis Association cover one game and possibly the Mankato Association. We'll see.”

--"I've worked every angle for this date and I'm at the end of my rope in trying to have enough officials for the date.”

All the southeast Minnesota conferences have transitioned from two-person to three-person basketball officiating crews in recent years. With shot clocks becoming mandatory in high school girls and boys varsity basketball next season, the game will be faster for every team and the necessity of three-person crews will be even more apparent.

But with the shortage of officials, some games this season are being played with just two officials when a third person simply isn’t available.

“We try like heck to have three-person crews at all varsity games but we don’t have enough people,” Butson said.

Coaches are well aware of the situation with officials, because they are being asked to reschedule game days and times. The tradition of girls and boys varsity games between two schools having one gender at one site and the other gender at the other school may be waning. For the Pine Island-Cannon Falls doubleheader, the girls games started at 6 p.m. with the boys tipping off around 7:45.

“Our boys like to watch the girls play and they don't get a lot of chances during the season,” said Cannon Falls boys coach Josh Davisson. “So I enjoy this and if we had to play at 6 vs. 7 o’clock, that doesn't matter. I'd rather have the varsity game than lose a game.”

There are upsides for fans when girls and boys teams play at the same site on the same night. Davisson said the crowd at Cannon Falls was larger than usual, and “I looked in the stands and I saw people that I don't normally see. They got to come in and watch both boys and girls play on the same night.”

There are several reasons for the shortage of officials. A number of veterans stopped working games during the Covid pandemic and have not returned. The way officials are treated by fans is certainly one reason why some step away; abuse of officials on youth and sub-varsity levels drives away young people who are interested in the vocation but quit because of how they are treated by parents and coaches.

Many basketball officials work games five or six days per week. That can mean hours spent driving to games and back home, leaving fewer hours of sleep before they report to their “real” jobs the next morning.

The crew on Tuesday at Cannon Falls was Mike Klavetter of Plainview, Lee Meyer of Kasson and Dean DeBoer of Byron. They worked both the girls and boys games. Like all officials in the region, they are adaptable to changing game schedules and sites.

The Pine Island-Cannon Falls doubleheader was one of three in southeast Minnesota that were rescheduled that evening.

“We’ll have enough varsity people there,” Butson said Tuesday afternoon. “I can send three officials to do both games vs. having six officials at two sites.”

Games had to be moved away from two Tuesday nights in December, with similar changes forced so far in January. When a major snowstorm arrived in early January, 68 junior varsity and varsity games were lost on one night.

“If we have another Tuesday or Friday that we lose everything due to Mother Nature, some games just won’t get played,” Butson said. “So far we’re making it work.

“Mondays and Thursdays are routinely for non-conference or extra games, but that’s where lot of reschedules have landed. My fear is that now we have officials who are overworked.”

Davisson said of officials, “I know a lot of these guys and I've talked to them and some of them are working five, six or more nights a week and it's tough on them.”

There are reasons for optimism. Butson said 15 or 16 new basketball officials have joined the RAOA this season, which means for the first time in many years there are enough officials to cover sub-varsity games.

“There is a bright side coming,” he said. “It’s not as bright as I want it to be. Also, we won’t be adding any three-person crews next year because all our conferences are already using three-person crews.”

Butson, who has been a physical education teacher in St. Charles for 23 years, will add something new to his workload this year. He will teach a class in sports officiating.

--Are you interested in becoming an official? Click here for information: https://www.mshsl.org/who-are-you/officiating

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at jmillea@mshsl.org  


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