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Recruiting officials is constant priority for PIAA

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association has 15,537 active officials on its roster.

That looks like a pretty significant number.

But when you consider that there are about 500 high schools in Pennsylvania, and that PIAA officials work games in nine sports for boys and nine for girls, and that about 2,500 officials retire or leave the ranks annually, you can see that recruiting more officials each year is a constant battle.

Pat Gebhart, the PIAA's assistant executive director, said the total number of officials in the state has remained fairly steady: For every 2,500 who leave each year another 2,500 sign up.

The problem is that many who leave officiating are very experienced, while the vast majority of new officials are starting from scratch.

"I think I see problems in the future," Southern Fulton athletic director Kent Hendershot said. "For example, our basketball officials are getting older and not moving as well, and I'm just not seeing any young ones coming up to take their place. I think the PIAA needs to be more proactive, and working to get college kids involved."

Audrey Hall, the girls athletics representative on the PIAA Board of Directors, said, "We're trying to make some progress, but the numbers are not going up as fast as we'd like them to."

"Retaining officials in their first couple of years is very important," Gebhart said. "If they stay long enough to get some confidence then they'll usually stick, but bad treatment by the fans and coaches causes a lot of new officials to leave."

Across the region, school and league officials pointed to retention and recruiting as key points of struggle.

"The problem is getting new guys interested, and they can see it's a tough job," said Fannett-Metal athletic director Greg Best. "I think the young guys get frustrated with all the criticism they take — it gets harder to ignore that."

Gordie Kauffman, the president of the York-Adams basketball chapter, said: "For us, the recruiting part isn't bad, it's the retention that's hard. If we get new ones past their first or second year we have a shot at keeping them around a long time."

A lack of officials can cause certain sports and certain areas to have difficulties filling assignments for all of the games.

Randy Umberger, the executive director of the Mid Penn Conference, said, "We had to make a protocol for scheduling field hockey and girls lacrosse games because of a shortage of officials. We have to spread those games out so they'll be covered. And we had to ask the ADs not to make changes once the games were assigned."

"The needs fluctuate," said Cindy Rinehart, the District 3 female officials representative for the last 24 years. "Field hockey and girls lacrosse are short now, and there's always a need for more soccer officials, especially since the girls got moved to the fall. Some volleyball chapters have a real need, too."

In the 2009-10 season, the Franklin County Chapter of soccer officials had a roster of 47 referees. Three years later, girls soccer moved to the fall, which happened about the same time the chapter starting losing members. By the end of the 2015 season, the chapter was down to 25 bodies.

Chapter assignor Dave Hose, who is also the soccer assignor for the Mid Penn, said, "We're now up to 30 and we hope to add more from a clinic we're holding. With the low numbers you get stretched pretty thin and it takes a toll on you physically. Right now I have over 40 games myself this fall and I hope I can give some of the JV games up to the new refs."

The assignor for the South Penn chapter of field hockey is Lea Smith, and she has her hands full trying to get every game covered.

"We try to accommodate the officials' schedules, and some days it's not that hard to do," Smith said. "But on days we have a lot of games, or have to work in makeups, it's hard. Sometimes I can pull in an official from Harrisburg or York, or as a last resort ask the AD to move the game. I probably had to do that about five times last year.

"Last year was just crazy. One of our officials found out she had cancer and another's husband got cancer and she had to support him. One girl hurt her knee and couldn't work. We did a lot of scrambling."

Because of the constant need for more officials — and in some cases a critical need — the PIAA finds itself in a continuous cycle of recruiting for officials.

Reminders are posted on its website. Commercials are aired on TV during championship games. Tests are offered at various sites around the state three times per year. Instruction and materials are provided for various programs that recruit and train new officials.

And that's not nearly enough.

For just the first round of state basketball playoffs, PIAA uses 600 officials. And those are the cream of the crop.

Chapters do a lot of legwork on their own, usually by word of mouth. Smith said she put ads on Craigslist, in newspapers and in local shopper guides. Hose and his chapter held a clinic in McConnellsburg this week that Hall set up that included a classroom session and an on-field session, followed by the PIAA test.

Umberger said Mid Penn schools have made their facilities available for meetings and clinics, "but the chapters have never reached out to us about recruiting, and we could probably work more with them to see if we can help."

Some success has been obtained through the START program at various colleges.

RELATED: START program is a beginning point for PIAA officials

The ideal candidate to be an official is somebody who has previously played the sport who wants to stay involved. One reason basketball struggles less to recruit officials is the large number of former players available. On the opposite side of that scale is lacrosse, a fast-growing sport that's relatively new to Pennsylvania.

"We have lots of schools who are starting lacrosse, but it's hard to get enough officials for that sport," Gebhart said. "There aren't as many former players."

In a little over two weeks, the 2016-17 scholastic season will get cranked up. If you attend a game, you'll see PIAA officials at work.

If you have what it takes to become an official, then just picture in your mind an old military recruitment poster, but instead of Uncle Sam pointing his finger at you, imagine a black-and-white striped figure saying, "PIAA needs you."