BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) – Sports have long been an integral part of the high school experience. They are an opportunity to promote fitness, teamwork, and community pride. But in Vermont, a number of issues are threatening the fabric of the game.
Declining population, Co-op teams, and even outright school consolidation have had a dramatic effect on the high school sports scene in Vermont over the years.
“You know, back when I was playing baseball here, we were in the Metro Division,” said Mt. Abraham Union High School alumnus Devin Wendel. “It eventually got to a point where we just couldn’t compete in that division anymore.”
Wendel is the now the school’s Athletic Director and Activities Coordinator. His department has faced down those challenges over the years, but he says another issue has arisen recently in the state of Vermont.
“I think the officials thing has been one of the biggest challenges, if not the biggest one,” Wendel said. “Early on in my career, it was nothing to basically change the date of a basketball game. Nowadays you check with the assigners before you even consider canceling the game or moving it.”
A lack of available officials has been somewhat of a known quantity in some sports over the years, like in field hockey and girls lacrosse. But this Fall it started to pop up in unexpected places.
“We saw in football where we started having Thursday night games and Saturday games,” said VPA Assistant Executive Director Lauren Thomas.
As we head into the Winter sports season this weekend, there is concern about that issue spreading to those sports. Factor in the frequency of Winter weather cancellations and postponements, and that’s a lot of potential hiccups
“In sports that we never used to have to worry about, now we have blackout dates where there’s already so many games scheduled,” Wendel said,
The VPA, schools, and officials are taking proactive steps to try and meet the demand.
“One of the things that we did going into this year was we, we signed on with Arbiter, who’s an officials assigning group,” Wendel said. “That group has essentially allowed us to schedule all of our different athletic events into one system.”
Chris MacFarlane is the head basketball assigner for the Northern Vermont Athletic Conference, and he’s been officiating hoops games for 34 years. He says it took a little while to get used to the new system, but he and the other officials he works with are figuring it out.
“I have our guys manage their schedule on our platform diligently,” MacFarlane said. “In other words, if you want a night off on Thursday and Saturday, you can go in and block it.”
They’ve also been making a concerted effort to recruit new officials.
“The last two years they’ve come up with IAABO-U where people can do their whole course online and not have to go in person and take that class,” MacFarlane said.
For people interested in getting involved, MacFarlane says the first step is to register for training with the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials.
And they make a point for new officials to be paired with vets when they’re getting started.
“You don’t wanna set them up for failure,” MacFarlane said. “So as an assigner, you kind of put them with a good, strong partner, put them in the game that they can manage. You never know when something’s gonna happen, but that tends to mitigate that quite well.”
The schools are stepping up as well with pay raises coming into effect next Winter that will take a varsity officials paycheck up to nearly $100 a game.
“You do four games a week, do the math,” MacFarlane said. “It adds up.”
But in addition to recruiting new officials, it’s critical to retain them as well. And that’s where fan behavior comes into the equation. MacFarlane says you have to have somewhat of a thick skin to do the job, but Wendell and VPA Assistant Executive Director Lauren Thomas are asking folks to clean it up.
“Officials don’t go out there and try to miss calls and do a bad job,” Wendel said. “They try to go out there and keep the game safe and playable.”
“I grew up in a hockey rink and I saw fist fights and all the other things,” Thomas said. “I think what we’re doing is we’re calling attention to it and we’re naming the behaviors that are unwanted. You gotta call it for what it is and then you can start cleaning it up, targeting it, and making it better for everyone.”
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