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In the fall of 1976, Tom Byrnes was an underclassman at Shippensburg University and took a class in officiating soccer.

A spark was lit.

In the time since, Byrnes has been a PIAA official in soccer, basketball and softball, and has also worked college games. He's now living in York, still officiating, and is the commissioner of the Capital Athletic Conference, a league of NCAA Division III schools.

He understands the mentality of officiating — the ups and downs, the challenges and the rewards. Byrnes also knows that recruiting is the lifeblood of maintaining a solid group of people to wear the stripes. Fortunately, he is in good position to do something about it.

Through a program at York College called START, Byrnes helps about 25 people a year get their start as officials with PIAA.

"Around 2009, some college commissioners met with a couple of PIAA executives; we were trying to find ways to break the glass ceiling so that high school officials could move into doing college games," Byrnes said. "The PIAA said if you're taking our officials to do college games, you need to help us replace them."

That spawned the new program, and PSAC commissioner Steve Murray coined the acronym START, for Students of Today Are Referees of Tomorrow.

At York College, Byrnes leads a program in the fall for winter and spring sports, and another in the spring for fall sports. If at least five officiating recruits sign up for any one sport, they will have an officiating class. The program runs three Sunday nights in a row.

"The first night I talk to all of them about what it means to become an official, then they break into groups for the separate sports," Byrnes said. "A rules interpreter then teaches them, with the goal to have them pass the PIAA test. The second week is all classroom and the third week is the test."

The PIAA supplies the instructors and materials and students take the courses for free. The program is also open to non-students, but they pay the usual PIAA registration fee of $30.

Some local chapters use START to get their own recruits registered, but the original targets are college students who have athletics in their background.

"The biggest thing to promote it is you need someone with the access to be able to send all-campus emails and get it on the school calendar," said Byrnes.

PSAC schools have done START programs in the past, but have recently put more emphasis in developing officials at the college level, according to Murray.

"I do believe the START program has some possibilities," Murray said, "and the PIAA was very, very helpful. I'm concerned in the long run (about producing enough good officials who could move on to college games), so I would be happy to have that conversation with anybody who wanted to start something (at a PSAC campus)."

PIAA assistant executive director Pat Gebhart said, "We use it as a way to get interested people registered as officials. We provide the instructors, the material and the test and then hopefully we reap the benefits."

How to become a PIAA official

- visit the PIAA website (piaa.org)

- fill out an application ($30)

- study the rules, then take the test; online testing is on the way

- join a local chapter

- or, talk to an official (please don't yell at them) and ask who you can contact in the local chapter to get started

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