Jeffrey Worster of Oxford Hills and Nicholas Lincoln of Nokomis compete in the 220-pound weight class during the Class A state wrestling championship at Sanford High School in February 2020. Worster won the meet, pinning Lincoln at 1:24 into the match. Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald

A consequential shortage of wrestling officials might force athletic directors to juggle schedules to accommodate the sport.

A variety of reasons are to blame for the shortage throughout the state.

“It is extremely dire,” Maine Principals’ Association assistant director Mike Bisson said. “(Wrestling has) lost a lot of good, young officials to work commitments and a year off. (It is) just difficult to get people back into it.”

Bisson believes COVID-19 didn’t help with recruiting. He said officials, who had a year off, got used to not working weekends and putting in the long hours officiating at wrestling meets.

He added that the MPA is working with groups like the Maine Interscholastic Wrestling Officials Association (MIWOA) “to get the word out.”

“Our Commissioner of Officials, Jeff Benson, has worked with a lot of individual sports boards to try and recruit,” Bisson said. “We have had some success in some areas in getting a lot of new people, but we are losing a veteran group in many of our sports, and that is really the issue with wrestling, is that a lot of veteran folks are retiring from this and moving on.”

Bisson added that young people have more work options, which might not allow them to commit to such a demanding schedule on the mat.

“I officiate football and we started this year just on our board alone with 21 people signed up to take the class,” he said. “We finished the season with seven new officials. We also lost a number of veterans. I think that this is a trend that is happening everywhere across the officials ranks.”

Benson applauds officials, assigners and ADs for making schedules work during the shortage.

“Kudos to the athletic directors and schools for being creative with their athletic schedules, moving times and knowing there is a shortage,” he said. “Those ADs and those officials assigners have done just a remarkable job to make sure we get people so we can have games covered.

“Those guys are on the front lines with it. They are trying their best with wrestling. It is not even a dire need. It is a grave need.”

SLIM PICKINGS

MIWOA board member and wrestling official Shawn Guest said the officials shortage might affect the sport this season.

“Wrestling is typically done on Wednesday night and Saturdays, and that’s always been the way it is,” Guest said. “Right now, I have 14 officials who can work full-time. I have another four who can do Saturdays, but they can’t do Wednesdays.

“So once the schedules come out, the ADs will have to do some finagling where they can to try to get some meets on maybe a Monday night or a Thursday night …”

Guest isn’t sure of what the adequate number of officials is to adequately cover the entire state.

“To cover the whole state, you are talking about Fort Kent to Kittery,” he said. “Two years ago, we had 25 (officials) and we managed to do it. We also had 10 new guys who were going to come on board last year. Because we didn’t have wrestling or anything, all those guys have just kind of gone their different ways. We had 10 who were going to come in and give us some good numbers right away, and boom!”

Guest said the sport requires officials to have knowledge of wrestling and move with the agility of a wrestler to get on the mat and make the call.

“Some of these guys would have gotten done last year or the year before, but they don’t want to leave the organization down and they have hung around,” he said. “We are all getting cortisone shots for our knees. One had a hip replaced.

“We are all beat to hell, but we are all hanging on. You want to do an all-day wrestling tournament at 65 years old — that’s a lot of legwork. I have to go in next week to have a cortisone shot in my knee because I will never get through the season, and several guys are doing that.”

Guest said four candidates passed their test this year and will be put on probation as officials this season.

“Last year, not having that year to recruit kids, that set us back,” he said. “There is no doubt about it. So it is a question of getting back out there and telling kids the money is good, and it is.”

OFFICIALS SOUND OFF

Guest said officiating can be a tough but a rewarding gig. He added officials work long hours, weekends and have to deal with unruly behavior at meets. A recent survey re-enforces his thinking.

The Maine Sports Officials sent out a survey this past October and 495 officials answered. When respondents were asked what are the biggest obstacles to attracting new officials, they said:

• Perceived or real abuse from coaches (75.1%).

• Perceived or real abuse from parents/fans (78.1%).

• Availability to work afternoon/evening contests (57.7%).

• Perceived or real negative climate towards officials in high school sports today (52.4%).

Benson echoed Guest’s thoughts about the irascible climate that can disrupt a sporting event.

“I know this not going to sound right, but some of the verbal abuse and stuff they get from fans, people don’t want to do it,” Benson said. “They get tired of it. Trying to get kids who graduated from college to come back into the games, they don’t want to do it just because of things they may have seen.”

Benson won’t place all the blame on COVID-19 for slowing down the MPA’s recruiting efforts.

“We know we need people and tried different things, and it is hard for those sports to go recruit when people aren’t coming out due to COVID,” Benson said. “They may not want to wear a mask when they officiate, especially indoors. It was (difficult to recruit) even before COVID, so I don’t want to blame it all on COVID.”

MAKING DUE

Medomak Valley athletic director and co-wrestling chair of the KVAC Matt Lash said life would be a lot easier if there were more officials on board when the season begins.

“I think if there is one group of professionals that can figure out and make it work, it’s high school ADs,” Lash said. “I have full trust and appreciation for what we are going to have to do this winter, but I believe that it is going to look different. But I believe we can make it work.”

He is expecting the schedule to be different this season due to the shortage.

“Some people might not like it,” Lash said. “The traditional Wednesday-Saturday is probably not going to happen. It might mean that some schools are wrestling on Mondays or Thursdays. It is certainly going to have an impact on basketball.

“I think that there are some schools — if they have the flexibility of more than one gym — maybe have wrestling on Friday nights, if they have two gyms available. We have four wrestling leagues in the state and we have 17 schools in our league alone …”

He added that most of the wrestling officials are from Southern Maine, and if all four leagues hold large meets on Saturdays, officials might not be able to service all those competitions.

But Lash is still trying to figure out how to make a schedule accommodating to all four leagues “unless we have more officials come out of the woodwork here in the next three weeks.”

“When you are talking about possibly 20 officials to cover four leagues that goes from Wells to Fort Kent, you don’t have to be deeply involved in the sport to realize that it’s just a very challenging situation,” he said. “No matter what sport in Maine, you are not seeing officials getting any younger.

“Let’s be honest, there are many sports in Maine where being an official is not a fun job with the way they get treated. The bottom line is we have to make it work because two years without it would be detrimental to the sport.”

Jon Gallant, the state’s assigner for high school wrestling officials, said this season “will be very interesting” as he waits for schedules from schools.

“We are spread (thin) from New Hampshire to Caribou in terms of officials,” he said. “We going to have to cover a lot of ground. We have a lot of guys, just for different reasons, whether it is work or family, just can’t work a full schedule. I am in Old Orchard and my part of the state has maybe two guys that are available no matter what.”

Gallant said Maine still conducts weigh-ins before each meet, but other states now forego that procedure, and that is something to consider, too.

Gallant continues to try and sell officiating to young people.

“Look, you don’t officiate because you want the money, because it is not enough to survive on, but the money is really good and it is a nice supplement to what you do,” he said. “I am at a point where I am looking at the end and I don’t know how much I am going to be on the mat this year, and it is mostly because I have a lot of stuff going on in my life.”

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