Blake McPheeters spends countless winter evenings inside gymnasiums throughout the area. He loves officiating high school basketball games.

“There’s nothing better than having a packed high school gym,” said McPheeters, a Jefferson City resident who has officiated high school football and basketball games for more than a decade.

The 33-year-old McPheeters is more the exception than the rule in Missouri high school officiating.

Go to almost any sporting event in Missouri, and you’re more likely to see an official who is at least 50 years old than one who is under the age of 40. Only wrestling and water polo have more MSHSAA-registered officials who are under 40 than those who are 50 or older.

Kenny Seifert, an assistant executive director for MSHSAA and the organization’s director of officials, is trying to boost the state’s numbers of young officials. Seifert appreciates veteran officials’ experience and commitment, but he doesn’t want MSHSAA to experience a void of qualified officials after the older generation hangs up their whistles.

“Within the next couple of years, as our older officials decide to complete their career of officiating, we do not see the younger numbers of officials to replenish that,” Seifert said. “That’s the growing concern, added with the fact that the population continues to grow, which means more and more kids are playing sports, which more and more schools are having teams.”

Seifert, the former athletic director at Moberly who has been an official for 12 seasons, is working with colleges and universities across the state to recruit young officials. He’s reaching out to college students who are enrolled in physical education, coaching or sports science classes and connecting with students who officiate college intramural games.

“I am going face-to-face and meeting with these students all across the state,” Seifert said. “A lot of kids just don’t know about the opportunities that exist in officiating, and they don’t know how to go about the process of registering. Once they find out it’s not that difficult and there are people they can communicate with to assist them with the process, all of a sudden they’re eager to get involved. The feedback has been tremendous.”

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Tolton athletic director Chad Masters noticed a numbers crunch for officials for girls soccer and baseball games this spring.

Baseball games start earlier in the day than most other sporting events, and some people who might be interested in umpiring can’t because of their work schedules. Rainouts and makeup dates put added strain on scheduling umpires. The host school might find a makeup date that’s agreeable for both teams but then have trouble scheduling umpires who have the date free and can work it on short notice.

Tolton experienced that scenario for a makeup game against Kirksville in May. The teams played the game with one umpire, who called the game from behind the pitcher’s mound.

“He did an awesome job,” Masters said. “I am definitely concerned, though, if we don’t start getting more officials.”

The Trailblazers also had to be flexible for a girls soccer game, playing the varsity game ahead of junior varsity so one of the officials could head to another varsity game elsewhere later in the evening.

“We’ve really had no complaints about the quality of officials we’ve had, but we just notice, especially this spring in those two sports, there is a big strain to get games covered,” Masters said.

Bruce Whitesides, the athletic director for Columbia Public Schools, and Southern Boone athletic director Pat Lacy said they’ve also noticed that MSHSAA seems pressed for baseball umpires, although their schools didn't play any games with a one-person crew.

Seifert said there’s “a tremendous shortage” of registered baseball umpires in Mid-Missouri, and he said there’s a shortage for soccer and volleyball officials throughout the state. The numbers are getting a bit tight in football, too, he said.

Although the number of registered officials has increased in the past 10 years, the increase in some sports has been fairly minimal. For example, although baseball, soccer, basketball and football each had more registered officials in 2016 than they did in 2007, according to data compiled by MSHSAA, each sport’s pool has increased by fewer than 100 officials.

And while the pool of registered officials has increased, so too has the number of high schools competing in MSHSAA events. In 2006-07, MSHSAA had 541 high school members, compared to 569 in 2016-17.

Plus, some schools have added sports.

In Boone County, Hickman, Rock Bridge and Centralia used to be the only schools with high school football. Since 2004, five other Boone County high schools — Battle, Tolton, Southern Boone, Hallsville and Harrisburg — launched teams. Battle and Tolton were new schools, while the others were existing schools that added the sport.

"There's more teams,” said Greg Kespohl, a Columbia resident and 27-year veteran of officiating basketball and football. “The other issue, a registered official does not equal a varsity official. Raw numbers really don't tell the story."

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When Kespohl was growing up, Red Weir Athletic Supplies was “the headquarters of officiating in Columbia.” Red Weir and his sons Mike and Rusty were longtime officials.

The sporting goods store served as the spot for high school coaches and officials to gather and talk shop.

"When I was starting up in the late '80s, that's where you went on a Saturday morning after your Friday night basketball games, Friday night football games,” Kespohl said. “That's where the games were discussed."

Kespohl, 47, earned his stripes when he was an 18-year-old attending Missouri.

"I started my freshman year to make money,” he said. “My friends were delivering pizzas and flipping burgers, and I said, 'That doesn't look like fun at all,' so I started refereeing. I liked it a lot better."

Kespohl took a two-year break from officiating while raising his family but otherwise has been refereeing games since that first year. He’s registered in football, basketball, baseball and softball and is the basketball mechanics interpreter for this area.

Officials must attend a mechanics clinic each year during their first three years of officiating. Kespohl has noticed that a lot of the refs who attend his clinics aren’t in their 20s but are middle-aged officials who recently started doing games.

"We've got some really, really good young officials, ... but there's just not very many,” Kespohl said. “The ones that we've got are really good. They're better earlier on than we've ever had before.”

The other problem, Kespohl said, is that many of the talented young officials get plucked away from the high school ranks by higher levels of the sport, or they stop officiating after they graduate college and get settled in their careers.

A pair of MU graduate students, Jake Young and Kevin Raher, are among the top young officials Kespohl knows. Raher, from Woodridge, Ill., has officiated high school and college basketball games while an MU student and is being evaluated by the NBA, Kespohl said.

Young, who is registered in football and basketball, is pursuing a Ph.D. in crop sciences. Young, a Bloomfield native, played three sports in high school and started officiating when he was 18 after a family friend who is an official approached him about the opportunity. He hopes to continue officiating after earning his Ph.D.

“Going off to college, I guess what attracted me most to officiating was just being able to stay a part of the game,” said Young, who works high school and college games. “Also, being a college student, being able to have a part-time income, that was definitely something that played into it. It’s definitely turned into one of my biggest passions.”

Young’s story is similar to that of McPheeters, who was a three-sport athlete at Blair Oaks and was drawn to officiating as a way to stay involved in sports.

“I think I’ll do it until I absolutely can’t run or can’t get up and down the court anymore,” McPheeters said.

McPheeters’ father, Roger, has officiated for more than 30 years. They work high school football games together and occasionally are paired together on a basketball crew.

Whitesides has officiated since 1984. He played baseball at MU, and then-coach Gene McArtor told his players it would be in their interest to take an officiating class offered by MU.

“It’s quite rewarding,” said Whitesides, who officiates NAIA football these days.

It’s rewarding in more ways than one.

The Columbia Public Schools’ pay scale for officials varies from sport to sport and whether the contest is middle school, junior varsity or varsity. A CPS varsity football game, for example, pays $100 per official, while a JV/varsity baseball doubleheader would net an umpire $110, plus mileage.

“It’s not like we’re asking them to do it for $1.50 a game,” Whitesides said. “It’s a little bit of mad money.”

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Seifert thinks there are three main reasons why there aren’t more officials in the younger age brackets:

— Job demands and a lack of ability to get to games in time.

— Family demands.

— The time it takes to learn the rules.

These are factors MSHSAA and school administrators can’t control. They can help control the environment officials work in.

“You can’t have a guy working a middle school basketball game, and the middle school coach is riding him like he’s Bobby Knight,” Masters said.

The athletic directors and officials interviewed said they think officials working games within the school system experience a pretty good environment.

Seifert and Kespohl said youth games conducted outside of the school system are often the most intense setting for officials in terms of yelling from coaches and fans. In such settings, there’s no school administrator present to help ensure a good environment for all involved.

Additionally, Seifert said, the officials who often work those games are teenagers who aren’t MSHSAA-registered officials and are just starting out. One bad experience can turn them off before they ever really get into it.

“That is the one level where there is very minimal accountability,” Seifert said. “There is very minimal supervision. The behavior” from coaches and fans “is very, very unacceptable at times.”

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MSHSAA does have more officials who are under 40 than it did a decade ago.

Baseball, basketball, football, soccer, softball and volleyball each has at least 25 percent of its registered officials from the sub-40 age group, but none of those sports has more than one-third of its officials from that age bracket. The number of officials who are 50 or older outrank the number who are under 40 in each of those sports.

Comparatively, in 2007, fewer than 20 percent of MSHSAA’s registered officials in baseball, basketball, football, soccer, softball and volleyball hailed from the sub-40 age bracket.

Seifert believes there’s still a lot of progress to be made to ensure there’s not a dearth of referees once the older officials retire their stripes.

In soccer, for example, 161 of the 566 registered officials — 28.4 percent — are 60 or older.

Of MSHSAA’s 7,457 registered officials across all its sports, 1,767 — 23.7 percent — are 60 or older.

“In the next four to seven years, if the majority of this age group decides to quit officiating, how are we going to replenish that?” Seifert said.

Seifert’s answer is to continue spreading the message about the rewards of officiating.

“Once they see the positive side of officiating, it’s amazing to see how many of them get interested,” he said, “and they get interested very quickly.”

btoppmeyer@columbiatribune.com
573-815-1781