Looking for a few good men, high school officiating group working to recruit, retain

Published 4:24 pm Thursday, June 20, 2024

In recent years, the national trend to attract and retain high school sports officials has been on a downward slope.

In a story this month in the New York Times, Bill Topp, president of the National Association of Sports Officials, said there was a 25 to 33 percent decrease in high school officials after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Lake Charles Area Football Officials Association has been able to beat the trend and is working to improve and grow the association.

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The LCAFOA had 110 officials before COVID-19. After a low of 77, the association was up to 102 last season and is able to run 11 six-man crews on Friday nights with one spare crew.

Wendell Christian, a 30-year officiating veteran and regional coordinator of officials, said he wants to grow the association to 14 crews or more. The LCAFOA covers eight parishes — Calcasieu, Cameron, Jeff Davis, Allen, Evangeline, Beauregard, Vernon and Acadia.

“At the end of the day, we still don’t have enough of them,” Christian said. “If a guy throws his keys on the desk and says ‘I have had enough,’ we have to find somebody else for that seat.

“When I came in here, it took us two to three years to get on the varsity field for the first time. Right now, it might be two weeks before you are on it (varsity game), some people may go in their first week. We have to use them.”

To help new officials become more proficient faster and improve the overall quality of crews, the LCAFOA has made changes in recent years.

For decades crew makeup changed weekly. Now each crew keeps the same officials all season. Radios were added in recent years for better communication between crew members and to allow mentors to give new officials tips without having to pull them off the field.

The old focus used to be on the written test, but new LCAFOA President Dr. Daryl Burckel, who will step down as President of McNeese State at the end of June, has pushed for more on-field training.

“We have an 80/20 split now between training on the field and training in the classroom when it used to be flipped,” Christian said. “We are hoping this helps, and it helped last year.

“I have to believe that it is going to help again this year. Seeing those snaps is a whole lot different than seeing it on a sheet of paper. It is like a dadgum algebra equation. You have to sit down and write it out. You don’t have that on the field. It is almost a knee-jerk thing. We had to do something different because we had to start training people faster to get them on the field.

“(Burckel) has been one of our top crew chiefs. His crew has been one of the No. 1 crews in the state. They are very good at it. They prep themselves like a college crew. They are the pattern that we want everyone to be like. We have four that are running just like him now and they are getting better by the day.”

With 35 officials in the local association with more than 10 years of experience, retention has become a focus.

“That is about a half and half right there,” Christian said.

“We feel that if we can keep them for three to four years, we got them. Until then, it is a nip-and-tuck situation.”

Nick Leday, the athletic director for Lake Charles Ward 3 recreation, said he started officiating recreational flag football games a dozen years ago before adding high school basketball and football last year.

“I have enjoyed it thus far,” Leday said. “I was voted top 40 official in the state of Louisiana under 40 years old. That has been a blessing. I was voted rookie official for Southwest Louisiana for football. Here I am today.”

Leday helps to recruit officials and said one of the keys is taking it seriously beyond just learning the rules.

“I am big on professionalism and organization,” Leday said. “If you are professional and organized, you can go out there and do any sport.

“You have to take it seriously because these coaches’ livelihoods depend on it. You have to be on time. You have to have the proper uniform. If you have that, everything else is rules and mechanics.

“The knowledge of the rules will come with the proper training and mentors. I have been fortunate enough to have both. It was a pretty easy transition from basketball to football.”

Matt Trahan, a local attorney, is headed into his 10th season as a football official and says he enjoys the friendship amongst officials.

“The reason I keep doing it is the other officials, the guys and girls that are in it,” Trahan said. “There is a sense of community and comradery that you can’t get in everyday life.”

Trahan said the biggest adjustment from being a fan to an official was looking at the game beyond who is running with the ball.

“When you watch it on TV, the quarterback takes a snap and hands it off and everyone watches him run down the sidelines,” Trahan said. “Officials can’t do that. They have to look at blockers, linemen, defensive players and how everything works together. That is the hard part.

“The rules and the mechanics just come with time. What is hard is changing how you watch football.”

NOTE: To become a high school sports official, register online at www.lhsaa.arbitersports.com.