For the most part, the game was played without controversy.
There was a technical foul, along with a couple of calls that brought grumbling from a few fans. Otherwise, the third team at the boys basketball game between Wyoming Seminary and Holy Redeemer last month – the officiating crew – went unnoticed.
But it shouldn’t have. The youngest of the trio was 42-year-old Joe Zelinske. The others were 56-year-old Greg Noone and 64-year-old Bruce Weinstock.
Age is creeping up on the men and women who officiate high school sports in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties. And there aren’t enough people in their 20s and 30s interested in officiating, according to Frank Majikes, vice president of the PIAA board of directors and the chairman of District 2.
The PIAA — the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association — is the governing body of school sports in the state. The organization is divided into 12 districts, with the Wyoming Valley Conference and Lackawanna League forming District 2.
The officiating problem is statewide, Majikes said. He noted the shortage is particularly acute in the newer sports of boys and girls lacrosse and specialty sports such as field hockey and volleyball.
“We’re always looking for younger officials,” Majikes said. “I’ve said for years the students playing don’t get older, but the officials do because they are always reffing the same age group. They will always be 15, 16, 17, 18 years old. We’re down in a lot of sports with young officials.”
Majikes said statistics weren’t available at the local or state level concerning the age of officials, but sparking interest in people who have recently finished their playing days has been a problem.
“There are some sports that are in dire straits,” Majikes said. “They are doing everything they can to recruit young officials to come out, but it’s tough.”
One recruiting tool is the START program, which the PIAA holds every few years in the area. START, an acronym for Students of Today are Referees of Tomorrow, gives college players a jump on officiating careers. The PIAA also runs recruitment commercials during the telecasts of its state championship events on the Pennsylvania Cable Network and has a section on its website (piaa.org) explaining the process of becoming an official.
Noone said he has approached former players in their 20s about joining the ranks, but interest has been tepid.
“It’s an issue in every sport,” Weinstock said. “There are a variety of reasons, but people just don’t want to do it.”
At the top of the list are time, pay and safety concerns.
Officiating can be time consuming. In a process that could take a couple of years, new officials need to work their way up the ranks until they get high school assignments. Also, some sports start at 4:15 p.m., making candidates unavailable because of their day jobs.
Money-wise, officials aren’t getting rich in the profession. The Wyoming Valley Conference pays basketball referees $71 a game; the Lackawanna League, $68. Basketball officials usually do 20 to 30 games per season, including the postseason, meaning the upper pay scale would be about $2,000.
Finally, Majikes said the possibility of being assaulted by an angry fan could be a factor in the shortage, although he said he doesn’t recall any issues reported in District 2 since 1984, when he worked on the district’s athletic committee, the local extension of the PIAA.
“There are challenges that have to be overcome,” said Bill Schoen, the male officials’ representative for District 2. “It’s not only the scheduling, but the home life has to be right, the work life has to be right. There are a lot of factors that go into making a successful official.”
The shortage of soccer officials has forced Weinstock, who also does that sport, to officiate back-to-back games on the same day.
“It’s not easy doing a varsity game at 4, followed by a JV game, and then a varsity game followed by a JV game at night,” he said.
Until the officiating ranks grow, that issue will exist.
“The thing of it is, we’re in our 60s and these kids … they’re running up and down the field like gazelles,” said John Gyory, a 67-year-old soccer and lacrosse official.
Testing for 13 PIAA-sanctioned sports is given three times a year locally, and on Aug. 5 at the officials convention in Harrisburg this year. The next dates locally are June 5 and Oct. 2 at both Meyers and West Scranton high schools.
Other arrangements can be made if a person can’t make it on the day of the test, which consists of 100 questions that applicants are given 60 minutes to complete.
“Usually, people do it inside an hour,” said Schoen, who gives the test at West Scranton and has officiated four sports for 34 years. “But that doesn’t account for the preparation time prior to taking the test. They get a rules book from the PIAA; they call me for sample tests of years gone by that I’m more than happy to provide.”
Maureen Williams, the District 2 female officials’ representative, gives the exams at Meyers and takes the same approach.
“The PIAA says you have an hour,” said Williams, a girls basketball and volleyball official for 45 years. “But I tell them, ‘I’m not going anywhere. Please finish.’ Some people are finished in 20 minutes. I couldn’t read 100 questions in 20 minutes. Others are there an hour and 15 minutes.”
The first step toward becoming an official is sending in an application and a $30 fee to the PIAA offices in Mechanicsburg. The fee is good for two tests in different sports, but they can’t be taken on the same date. The PIAA supplies a rules book and study sheets.
People also can walk into test sites without applying to the PIAA first, fill out an application, pay the fee and take the test. But Williams doesn’t recommend this approach.
“You can have people come in and say they are going to take baseball,” she said. “They say, ‘I’ve been umpiring Little League for 20 years.’ And right away I say to myself, ‘Uh oh.’ They think because they did Little League it’s the same as high school, and it’s not and they get a rude awakening when it’s not.”
The tests then are sent to the PIAA for grading, and applicants will be informed within two weeks whether they achieved a passing score of at least 75. Williams and Schoen said the pass rate varies from 60 to 70 percent.
Once a test is passed, new officials must receive background clearances and join a local official chapter for their sport. But that’s only a small part of getting onto the field.
Luke Modrovsky, a 20-year-old Wilkes University student, has been working his way up the ranks. He played several sports at Crestwood High and acknowledged he wasn’t a star in any of them. But his love of sports got him into officiating, and he’s passed the tests for baseball, basketball, football, softball and volleyball.
He officiates varsity volleyball and has done two high school football games and a softball game. Although most of his work is at the lower levels, he encourages anyone considering officiating to try it.
“I would tell them there are a lot of opportunities in every sport,” Modrovsky said. “There are a lot of guys who are looking to retire, but they hang around because they see there is still a need for them. Their guidance has been fantastic in mentoring, not only me but some of the younger officials as well.”
The Wyoming Valley Conference formed a boys soccer league in 1986 with less than a dozen teams. A girls league followed four years later. There now are 74 soccer programs – both boys and girls – in District 2.
Lacrosse could be the next sport to see such growth.
According to uslacrosse.org, the National Federation of State High School Associations reported 1,107 new high school programs were started from 2009 to 2014. The NFSHA is an umbrella group for state scholastic associations, including the PIAA.
District 2 has been part of the upswing. The district held its first lacrosse championships in 2011 with a total of seven teams, both boys and girls. The 2016 season wrapped up with 18 programs, and there will be 22 teams this spring.
“The teams are growing more than the officiating ranks,” Schoen said, “so we have to do a concentrated effort to get more people to become lacrosse officials.”
John Gyory is doing just that. He and fellow Luzerne County resident Ron Pieczynski, both of whom have over three decades of experience in soccer and basketball officiating, are at the forefront of recruiting prospective lacrosse officials.
They both began their lacrosse officiating careers well outside the area.
“We had to go to Philadelphia first because there were no teams here,” Gyory said. “There were like two teams, but I was told it was coming. We had just retired from teaching, and someone told us we should get into lacrosse because we already have youth programs here and within five years it will be coming just like soccer did years ago.”
The newness, though, created a problem. Officials often gravitated to sports they played in high school or college. That pool doesn’t exist in lacrosse, so Gyory and Pieczynski recruited from the soccer officiating pool. There also are some football officials who do high school lacrosse.
Gyory and Pieczynski hold clinics for prospective lacrosse officials. When there is a junior-varsity game, a varsity official will work it with a newcomer when possible as part of the learning process. The rules in boys and girls lacrosse differ, and there are separate tests for each.
Love of the game
“They all love what they do, and they do it for the student-athletes,” Weinstock said. “If you’re in it for the money, then you’re probably not going to last too long. Nobody is getting rich doing this.”
Officials also are prohibited by PIAA bylaws from commenting on calls, not only in their games but in those of other officials. They can’t even voice their opinion on a call made in a game outside the state.
“It’s not for everybody,” said Earl Harris, 60, a 34-year veteran of football officiating. “You can’t have rabbit ears. You have to have thick skin because you’re going to get yelled at no matter what. And it’s not just at the game, it’s out in public.
“People can say what they want. They can make a smart comment. You just have to ignore them.”
Harris and others have done that for decades. Now they’re hoping an infusion of youth can allow them to retire when they are ready.
“I’m 67 and Ron is 70,” Gyory said, referring to Pieczynski. “People say, `Why don’t you get out of the sport and let somebody else do the games?’ Yeah, it would be wonderful if we had those people.”