Victoria Jacobsen
The Bulletin

Interested in becoming a referee?

The Bend Park & Recreation District is hosting a mandatory meeting for prospective boys lacrosse referees at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the park district office at 799 SW Columbia St. All referees must be at least 14 years old and be able to pass a criminal background check and drug screening. Officiating experience is not required but applicants should have sound lacrosse knowledge. Officials will be paid $15 to $20 per game. The season will run from April 27 through June 3. For more information, contact Rich Ekman at rich@bendparksandrec.org .

For more information about becoming a women’s lacrosse umpire, visit www.owlua.com.

The biggest expense for the Summit High School girls lacrosse team is not equipment, uniforms or even travel costs — it is paying umpires to officiate games.

Girls lacrosse has grown rapidly in Central Oregon: The Summit club team now has separate varsity and JV squads, while Mountain View and Bend high schools share a team, Sisters has its own, and Ridgeview and Redmond started their own combined club this spring.

But the pool of girls lacrosse officials has not kept pace. Currently, only one Central Oregon resident is qualified to officiate high school girls lacrosse, which means that at least one umpire must travel from outside the region — typically from Portland or Eugene — to officiate every game played in Bend, Redmond or Sisters. And those costs quickly add up to thousands of dollars.

“We pay mileage, and we have to pay for lodging if they end up having to stay the night if we do a tournament or have back-to-back games,” explained Summit girls lacrosse coach Polly Purcell. “And it’s not just a financial challenge; because the number of officials we have coming over here is so low, we have to coordinate our schedules with each other to make sure that if I’m going to have a game this afternoon, maybe Bend plays just before us so the refs can stay.”

For Purcell and other lacrosse coaches, the complications multiply from there. Most umpires cannot leave their day jobs early enough to officiate a weekday match, which leaves most games to be played on weekends, limiting the number of games each team can schedule for the season. Purcell said her Central Oregon teams have never played a contest with a full crew of three officials, and until U.S. Lacrosse mandated that at least two umpires officiate each game, a new rule that went into effect this season, the Storm often played under the supervision of just one. Even when the weather is perfect in Central Oregon, a game between two local teams could be canceled if the officials are unable to make it over the Cascades due to bad travel conditions. And with so few umpires to go around they get tired, too.

“Three years ago, we had a team of officials come over and ref, and we wanted to play our JVs and our varsities,” Purcell recounted. “Well, they can only do so many games in a day, so we had to cancel our last game because they couldn’t do any more games. They were physically exhausted after all those games.”

Purcell said she believes the shortage of officials can be attributed to the fact that the sport is relatively new to the West Coast, and most of the parents who do have a lacrosse background tend to be recruited as coaches. Additionally, the rules for boys and girls lacrosse are so distinct that officials have to be trained and certified separately for each.

And there is one more problem: No one seems to have enough referees to officiate any sport.

“It’s a challenge every year,” said Rich Ekman, a sports program coordinator with the Bend Park & Recreation District. “The two most difficult parts of my job are finding volunteer coaches and finding officials for all of our youth sports.”

The park district typically recruits and trains its own officials for youth leagues and contracts out with officials associations for adult sports. Although participation numbers keep climbing for recreational leagues — the number of youth lacrosse players jumped from 600 to 700 this spring, for instance — most of the youth officials are high school athletes with limited schedules due to their own practices and games. Meanwhile, officials associations are facing declining membership.

“For soccer, flag football and lacrosse, we like to schedule two officials to work every game, but there are some times when we don’t have enough, and we only schedule one official to work a game,” Ekman said. “We’ve never had to cancel games or limit the number of kids we take into our programs because of a lack of officials, but it’s getting close.”

Dave Williams, the athletic director at Bend High School, said he has been forced to cancel events because the local officials associations are so strapped for referees.

“I don’t think there’s any one sport that is easier or has more officials than the next,” Williams said. “I think they’re all struggling to provide enough people to cover the amount of contests we have in Central Oregon. There are times when we do have to bring officials in from outside the area for the local Friday night football games, so it’s tough for them.”

Bob Reichert, who serves as the commissioner for the Central Oregon basketball, baseball and softball officials organizations, said the lack of officials is a growing problem throughout Oregon and the United States — but Bend’s reputation as a destination for tournaments has put particular strain on local referees and umpires.

“People want to come here, so there are constantly tournaments being hosted, anywhere from the grade school kids up to the adult level,” Reichert said. “Well, we take people to do those, and the next thing you know we burn them out because they do so many games.

“As an example, we have fast-pitch softball tournaments, and an official might do six, seven games. I don’t know how they do it, because physically it’s tough, but mentally it’s got to be even more difficult.”

One of the few local leagues with a relatively stable officiating situation is Bend North Little League, which has had a steady crew of about 15 volunteer umpires for the past several years. Dave Kramer, co-umpire in chief for BNLL, said that, ideally, Little Leagues are supposed to use volunteers for all umpiring positions, but many simply cannot find enough volunteers and either have to pay umpires or draft coaches to do double duty as officials.

Although BNLL does have managers act in that dual role at some lower levels, Kramer said that his group has been able to retain members by developing a strong sense of camaraderie and support between the umpires, even meeting as a group once a month to socialize and talk baseball.

“Umpiring is the only profession where you’re expected to be perfect on the first day and improve each day thereafter,” Kramer said. “It takes years to learn game management and learn how to diffuse negative situations.”

Still, Kramer understands why many officials quit before they learn to manage those difficult game situations. As a high schooler in Rochester, New York, he worked as a Little League umpire. But he decided he was done after a coach dressed him down for a fair-foul call and returned to umpiring only when his own kids began to play baseball.

And that kind of experience can be just as much of a deterrent to new and prospective refs as unfamiliarity with rules, long drives to and from events and full days of officiating.

“It’s not always fun being a sports official,” said Ekman, the BPRD sports program coordinator. “We have guidelines and policies in place for players and coaches and the parents to respect officials, but that doesn’t always take place. And so you get verbally abused out there sometimes, and a lot of people think it’s just not worth the money you make to go out there and get yelled at.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0305, vjacobsen@bendbulletin.com

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