MISSOULA — They're the first targets to get screamed at and blamed at a sporting event, but the truth is this:
Without referees, high school sports don't happen.
Throughout the pandemic seasons of 2020-21, referees are the forgotten bunch who have also had to adjust drastically so games can happen, making it a challenging year in an already difficult position.
"The key to this season and the COVID year and everything has been flexibility," said Lea Upshaw-Potoczny, the Montana Officials Association (MOA) regional director for the Great Falls area (Region 5). "As officials we had to adapt to canceled games, rescheduled games, different protocols.
"At the end of the day, we got through it. We're moving on, the kids are still playing, and that's what we're here for."
Numbers for high school officials have dropped over the years in Montana, but COVID-19 made that even more of a factor. Some officials opted to sit out for personal health concerns, others work day jobs that carry high exposure to the virus, so they opted for a leave of absence to avoid bringing it to high school events.
"The big-picture stuff is we got to play basketball this year," said Chuck Dotson, MOA regional director for the Kalispell area (Region 1). "For a lot of states west of the Mississippi, we’re one of the few that had an opportunity to play basketball in the wintertime.
"I feel good that we got the chance to have a season, I feel bad for the kids because they didn't have large crowds at any games in any part of the state this year."
Joel Fuhrmann, MOA regional director for the Missoula area (Region 2), said his area was hit hard with those who chose to opt out, meaning those who stayed saw an increased workload.
"Last year in the Missoula pool, we had 88 officials, and this year I believe we are sitting right around 55 or 60 officials," Fuhrmann said. "So with basketball what that looked like was there was lots of weeks where officials were working contests four or five nights a week."
While statewide the number of officials declined due to opt-outs, Dotson's region in Kalispell actually grew. Last year there were 48 referees for basketball and that number grew to 55 this season, though a couple from that pool of 55 did choose to take a leave of absence.
According to Upshaw-Potoczny, who referees volleyball, fall sports were one of the tougher elements for officials because that was the first run through with COVID-19 protocols and the new guidelines and adjustments.
"The fall sports were the first ones that had to deal with a lot of these challenges," she said. "We had to work through them and, fortunately, we have a lot of officials who do more than one sport. So the ones who did a fall sport knew what to expect when they went into their winter sport.
"As the regional director, I went up to the pools in my region for winter sports and told them, 'This is how fall sports went. Hopefully it'll go better for you but definitely be ready because even on the day of your game you could get that phone call where your game is canceled for that night.'"
Flexibility and adjustments are how this season can be described. Referees also had to follow COVID-19 guidelines, including wearing masks, with some choosing to do so during live competition.
Fuhrmann added that normally those in charge will visit with referees for clinics once a week to study film in order to get better, but this year it was all over Zoom which was a "positive" change from all of it.
For assigners, on-the-fly adjustments were the norm as opposed to being able to plan ahead.
"We were playing catch-up all year long," Region 1 chief assigner Ray Lodien said. "Most years we settle into a routine and we try to get the assignments out 10 days, two weeks ahead of time. This year we were continually playing catch-up."
Lodien said the closest to game time that he had a game need to be reassigned was four to five hours before tipoff. The busiest day he scheduled for this season was a day that had 74 games.
"We had officials who were dealing with COVID in their own lives," Lodien said. "Either they had it themselves or they were quarantined. Some were out of work because of COVID so we had those issues we were dealing with. Then we would schedule the games, and very often, they would find themselves quarantined or shut down completely, and they would scramble and try to reschedule the games. So as the season went on, we found we were stacking games on top of games, so the few days a week that we have games, they were very full.
"It was a continual puzzle and we kept finding new pieces to plug in and we made it work. I have to say that our pool members were amazing. They continually stepped up and they're the ones who deserve the credit for that."
In the Missoula area, around 1,100 games were assigned ranging from middle school to high school varsity. During that, 175 games were canceled or rescheduled. In the Kalispell area, 391 games were played and a total of 374 game changes occurred, with some games getting changed more than once. MOA regional director for the Billings area (Region 7) Jay Lemelin estimated his pools reffed close to 1,000 basketball games, and this year worked with 55 active officials compared to 70 two years ago. A common theme for officials was reffing multiple games a day in more than one location.
Lemelin said he had referees work a range from six games in the basketball season, to some working up to 69 total this season.
"For individual officials, (the biggest challenge) was the volume of games," said Lemelin, who referees basketball. "I retired from my real job which made me much more available but I can't remember the last time I worked 40 games in a season and we do that because we want younger officials to have the opportunities."
Still, through all of the challenges, officials were once again able to overcome it and make it work.
"It's one good thing about officials, we're going to bend over backwards to make sure that the games go," Fuhrmann said. "As the (Montana High School Association) likes to say, 'If there's no officials, it's just recess.' Our officials across the state of Montana have stepped up and have done a really good job with getting games covered."
"No. 1, we’re here so the kids could play the games, and if and when they’re playing, and you’re available, we’re going to put you on so we did," Lemelin added. "We got through it but it was absolutely an effort on everyone’s part."