Grant Lucas

Carla Johnson played basketball at Thurston High School in Springfield and at Eugene’s Lane Community College. After her playing career ended, she was not ready to give up the sport.

Heather Commins was a self-described gym rat growing up in the Lake Oswego area and carried that passion to the courts at George Fox University in Newberg. She continued competing in pickup games in Central Oregon until a hamstring injury made her realize it was probably time to call it quits. Like Johnson, though, Commins was not willing to quit cold turkey.

“I still loved the game,” says Commins, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Sisters Christian Academy. “I wanted to stay connected with the game. I thought I’d feel it out and see if I enjoyed refereeing.”

That was four years ago for Commins, six for Johnson, during a time when a female basketball official strutting onto the floor drew double takes. Johnson recalls being the only woman at the time with a whistle in the Central Oregon Basketball Officials Association.

Over the past five years, the number of high school sports officials in Oregon has decreased by 16 percent, according to a joint release by the Oregon School Activities Association and the Oregon Athletic Officials Association. Games have been canceled for lack of officials, more so at the subvarsity levels.

In Central Oregon, a welcome rise in the number of female basketball officials, ranging in age from 19 to 65, has resulted in a significant uptick in the overall availability of referees.

As longtime COBOA commissioner Bob Reichert puts it: “We felt like we kind of hit the mother lode this year with our female officials.”

“When we got some of these gals in, I really felt like we were blessed,” says Reichert, whose association currently boasts 10 women referees, by far the most ever for the COBOA. “They have playing experience in college, and some of them have progressed so quickly that it’s been really heartwarming to see.”

The influx of women officials has been a godsend, Reichert notes, in a weather-challenged season that has resulted in the rescheduling of countless contests. That includes the numerous levels of boys and girls basketball served by the COBOA: high school, middle school, youth — not to mention adult leagues — across Central Oregon and beyond.

“I love it,” Johnson says of seeing more women joining the COBOA. “Most of the girls are much younger than I am. Most of them are straight out of college, they’re very athletic, they’re very willing to learn. They want to hear what people suggest to them. It’s not like they’re coming out and shouldn’t be there. All of them are very good and make great strides week to week and month to month on improving their game, and they’re serious about it. They like to be on the court, and they want to be good. It’s great.”

“The newness of female officials, when they walk in, there’s skepticism that, ‘Do they really know what they’re doing? This is a girls game, but can they do the boys game?’ Yes, they can,” adds Reichert. “Their court presence has just been outstanding.”

Reichert relates a story of second-year officials Leona Steel and Shyanna Ashworth, who a few weeks ago were assigned to work back-to-back boys and girls varsity games in Paisley, a Class 1A high school about 130 miles south of Bend in remote Lake County, on the southern reaches of the COBOA service area. Not long after the games, Reichert recounts, “before the two gals even got to their car,” the COBOA commissioner received a phone call from Paisley athletic director Jon Jones. Jones thanked Reichert for sending Steel and Ashworth to Paisley and invited him to send them anytime.

“I thought that was the best postgame (phone call) anybody could ever give me,” Reichert says.

Officiating youth sports is a thankless job, and while COBOA officials are paid for their work and reimbursed for their travel, the harsh treatment they often receive — from spectators, coaches and even players — has driven many a referee to turn in his or her whistle, said Reichert. That harassment, he added, also deters prospective officials from even considering putting on a striped shirt.

“It’s definitely not for just anybody,” Johnson, a homemaker and community volunteer, says of being an official, noting that she officiated 130 basketball games last season. “It still is a man’s world, regardless of how many of us are stepping into it. It does take a certain type of female, I think, to stand on the court in front of a bunch of people and be yelled at.”

The COBOA members, particularly the veterans, Reichert says, have been “instrumental” in helping the female officials — and any newcomers, really — build confidence and establish the proper mechanics of officiating a game.

“Everybody does it for the right reason,” Johnson says. “Everybody wants to do a great job. Every time we step on the court, we do it to the best of our abilities. It’s a great group of people.”

Now, some female COBOA officials are looking to recruit, in a sense.

“There are a lot of women athletes who are those gym rats and really love the game and might need a little bit of that confidence boost to stay with (officiating),” adds Commins. “It’s great to see. Refereeing girls games, I would say, is kind of being an example for them: those high school girls and younger girls. Every once in a while you get to talk to them a little bit.”

Like it was her selling point to an aspiring official, Commins then adds: “I wish I had started sooner. I’m so glad I gave it a shot.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0307, glucas@bendbulletin.com

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