Officiating in Maine, Part 2: Being the bad guy tough to learn

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A collision on the court forced the ball out of bounds. The whistle blew, but the official decided no harm, no foul.

The Wiscasset High School student section erupted in protest, directing its ire at the referee who looked like he could be sitting next to them in geometry class.

“Hey ref!,” one young spectator shouted. “How about a foul? What, you gotta go do your homework?”

With his back turned to the hecklers, Ben Laflin couldn’t help but take the whistle from his lips and let them curl into a small smile.

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Laflin, 24, is just a few years removed from committing fouls rather than calling them. A star forward on Hall-Dale’s 2005 Class C state championship basketball team, he is part of a rare and coveted class of officials in Maine high school sports — dedicated, well-trained and young.

Scholastic sports are always in need of new officials. Scholastic sports in Maine are facing a number of obstacles keeping up with the demand for officials, and having enough young candidates to fill the void is a distinct issue for a state that has problems keeping young talent in all walks of life from leaving.

Being the bad guy

And yet while the population in Maine is aging, high school sports are growing exponentially. Even sports that have unprecedented numbers of officials are struggling to keep up with the growth.

Maine has about 95 officials statewide to cover all high school and most prep school hockey games, the highest number ever, according to Greg Dumais, who assigns officials to high school and prep hockey games throughout the state.  Yet, with the addition of girls’ hockey as a Maine Principals’ Association sanctioned sport in 2008, getting three-man crews to every game is virtually impossible.

“It’s tough especially on weekends, on Saturdays where we typically have 40 or 50 games,” Dumais said. “You put in three-man officiating crews and, for a lot of them, we just don’t have enough people. You have to take into consideration that we’ve got about 20 to 25 officials who work college hockey as well, so those officials are not available for 75 percent of the season on weekends. Guys are actually doing two or three games in a day.”

Following the trend nationwide, girls’ lacrosse has been one of the fastest-growing sports in the state. Since sports often rely on former players to become officials, finding enough officials for a burgeoning sport that the MPA didn’t start sanctioning until 1998 is a major challenge.

“I think we’re hanging on by our fingernails,” said Barbara Snapp, treasurer of the Maine Women’s Lacrosse Officials Association, which oversees officiating of Maine’s 39 varsity girls’ lacrosse teams, as well as junior varsity, middle school and rec programs. “The programs are expanding in Maine, which is great, and we are just barely keeping up with enough new officials to offset the attrition that we get and accommodating the new teams.”

The MWLOA has approximately 60 members, also known as umpires, to cover its officiating duties. One of its newest members is Rachel Sevigny, a St. Joseph’s College student and former player at Thornton Academy.

Sevigny, who will be a senior at St. Joe’s in the fall, didn’t want to continue playing lacrosse in college but wanted to stay involved with the sport through coaching and officiating. After attending four MWLOA classes, passing the U.S. Lacrosse apprentice test and undergoing some field training in the preseason, she was assigned to her first game.

Working middle school games, she loved officiating immediately, but after some “rough experiences” with coaches and parents in her first year, she wasn’t sure about coming back for a second.

“I look at it as someone has to be the bad guy and make the call and not everyone is going to agree with it, and I like everyone to be happy, so I struggle with that,” said Sevigny, who is a member of the St. Joe’s cross country team. “If a coach disagrees with something or a parent disagrees with something, you have to learn to not necessarily shut them out but to not listen to what they’re saying and stay focused and in the game.”

“I decided to stick with it and I absolutely love it,” she added.

Sevigny, who plans to become a phys ed teacher upon graduation, has worked varsity and JV games this year (lacrosse officials often do both back-to-back at game sites). She usually works with more experienced officials,

“It really helps because they obviously understand what they’re doing out there. They can help you out. If they see something, they can correct you on it, which I think is great,” she said.

She enjoys passing along her knowledge of the game to the players.

“I like the aspect of being on the field with the girls. When they don’t understand something they’ll turn to me and ask,” she said. “I still have a passion for the game. I played it so long. It’s been a big part of my life.”

Laflin was still playing basketball at Hall-Dale when he first blew a whistle in youth rec games.  When Mark Byron, a long-time basketball referee with IAABO (International Association of Approved Basketball Officials) Board 20 told him about the chapter’s Jr. IAABO program, Laflin saw it as an opportunity to hone his officiating skills and learn the rules of the game.

Learning the rules helped him become a better player, Laflin said. But the most valuable training the program provided came from attending classes and being critiqued by veteran Board 20 officials while working travel team pick-up games.

Officiating after high school allowed Laflin to stay involved in the game and earn some extra money while attending the University of Maine at Farmington.

As soon as he turned 18, he took the board’s written and floor tests and earned his certification. He started officiating high school freshman and JV games as a college freshman and started to do a few Class D varsity games in his second year. Last year, Laflin and Andrew Gordon became the first participants of the Jr. IAABO program to officiate in the tournament. His first game was a boys’ Class D quarterfinal between Valley vs. Greenville

“It was a great experience,” said Laflin, who works for a consulting firm and lives in Farmingdale. “I actually ended up doing four games this year.”

A lot to learn

Finding good prospective officials like Sevigny and Laflin is difficult enough. Even if the required training, pressures of the job, time commitment, cost of equipment, uniforms, board dues and other fees involved don’t initially scare them off, retaining them so they can develop into experienced officials can be a losing battle.

Even those who get extensive training at a young age tend to drop out of officiating relatively quickly. Few of Laflin’s fellow Jr. IAABO classmates stuck with it for long.

“They were starting college and getting involved in other activities. That’s one thing,” Laflin said. “The other thing is, when you first come on, it’s a lot to learn. You have to learn the mechanics because it’s your only communication. It’s a lot of information to learn and apply along with the rule book itself, and not to mention the heat from the fans and coaches. Some people just find it wasn’t a good fit for them.”

“Sometimes it’s because they decide the sport is too much for them or it’s because other things happen in their life,” said Snapp, who has been a lacrosse official for eight years and soccer official for 22 years.

Young officiating prospects start new families and new careers, get better jobs out of state or can’t fit officiating into their work schedule. Some get impatient or frustrated after doing subvarsity games for a year or two and drop out. Others, unlike Sevigny and Laflin, can’t adapt to the scrutiny of coaches, players, parents and opinionated student sections.

But there is something to be said for the thick skin one develops while holding a whistle, Laflin said.

“You have to go into every gym realizing that you are going to disappoint 50 percent of the people 100 percent of the time,” he said. “Basketball officiating, if anything, has built my character to the extent that I can stand back-to large numbers of people yelling at me and I don’t flinch.”

Except maybe an occasional small smile.

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