The whistle-blowing referees at high school games may not always have fans in the bleachers, but the kids can’t play the games without them.

And there aren’t enough of them, especially for girls-only sports.

The Vermont Principals’ Association, the governing body for high school sports, has made recruiting new officials a priority for this year.

“Do we have a shortage? Absolutely we do,” said Bob Johnson, the group’s associate director. “Every sport that we have is top-heavy with veteran officials who are getting to that point where they can’t do it anymore, or are dropping down to junior high or younger because they can’t keep up with varsity.”

It’s a nationwide trend. According to a study of Iowa athletics by the National Federation of State High School Associations, in the decade that ended last year, the state lost 12 percent of its certified officials. Forty percent of those officials were 50 or older.

Johnson sees similar trends in Vermont, although his association doesn’t track the stats.

“It used to be, in the past, a new official would start at the JV level and work his or her way up,” Johnson said. “Nowadays, they get tossed right into the mix at the varsity level.”

To recruit more officials, the principals’ association held a job fair two years ago, and plans another one soon. The national federation funneled a pool of online applicants Vermont’s way this year, and about a third of them have become officials.

Often, veteran officials will go to college games and recruit students to be referees. It’s good money for a college kid, and Johnson said Vermont pays its refs as well or better than other New England states. But college students are often around for only a few years.

Officiating sporting events takes a level of confidence that not everyone has, or at least starts with.

“If you’re coming into officiating now, you’ve got to come in with a thick skin,” Johnson said.

“As an official, you have to have confidence and complete knowledge of the rules in many different ways, and that can be difficult in any sport,” said Chris Langevin, Harwood Union High School’s athletic director.

If there’s one thing that will unite fans of opposing teams, it’s their ire for the zebra-striped man with the whistle in his mouth. And fans are sometimes downright mean.

According to another study from the national federation, verbal abuse is a big reason why officials leave the game.

“Coaches and athletes bear some of the responsibility for this, but by far ‘adult fans’ was the reason cited by most officials as to why they decided to leave officiating,” the study reported.

Johnson said he’s “hearing more and more” about parents sticking around after the game and laying into the refs. Or the umpires.

He pointed to the baseball playoff game this year between Harwood and Lake Region, in which a close call at the plate stymied a Harwood comeback and caused the Highlander faithful to cry foul.

“I’ve seen it. It was the right call,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the scene was so tense that Langevin personally escorted the umpire who made the call to his car after the game.

“Ask a basketball official about how confident they are in every call, or an umpire on every strike,” Langevin said. “It really takes a special individual to be an official, to have the understanding of every rule within a sport, and to have the confidence to make those calls. It’s difficult for any sport, really.

“That’s why I have the utmost respect for the people that come to our games to officiate. It’s not an easy gig, and may in fact be the hardest on every game day.”

Getting the girls’ game

Soccer is the sport most in need of officials, primarily because so many Vermont schools offer the sport, for boys and girls, in all four divisions and at the varsity and JV, freshman, middle school and elementary levels. Plus, the games typically start around 4 p.m. or earlier, so finding someone who can make it to a game at that time, often with a lengthy car ride, isn’t easy.

After soccer, the ref deficit is worst for girls lacrosse and field hockey, Johnson said.

The pool of people who once played the game is smaller than just about any sport in Vermont, which means fewer people fully understand the rules. Sure, some people, especially seasoned refs looking for a new challenge, will bone up on the rulebook, but most officials have played the sports they’re calling.

Janet Godin, who retired last year as Stowe High School’s field hockey coach, said she’s officiating middle level matches in Stowe and Montpelier. She’s also the school’s nurse.

“But I’m no spring chicken,” she said, laughing. “It all depends on how the old wheels are holding up.”

Well-played — and well-officiated — field hockey and girls lacrosse can be a delight of graceful athleticism. Since the girls’ versions of these sports outlaw bodily contact, the game is more about fluid footwork, fancy dekes and sharp passes, and less about crash and crunch and grunt.

But a lack of knowledge about the rules of field hockey and girls lacrosse — an entirely different, more nuanced game than the straightforward version the boys play — often extends to the fans, where parents start murmuring in confusion every time a ref blows a whistle. And there can be a lot of whistles.

“Gah, I’ve heard the whistle jokes. So much,” said Ali Vigneau, Stowe’s new field hockey coach.

Vigneau said when she played at Stowe High, some of the parents came up with a cheat sheet that explained the various arm movements the refs were making, which they distributed among fellow fans.

“It’s nice that the parents were that interested in it to take the time,” she said.

Katie Marvin, the girls lacrosse coach at Lamoille Union High School, did something similar for her fans. She put together a handout explaining the game for parents of her players. That handout also “emphasizes Lamoille’s good policy of sportsmanship at games, from players and coaches to parents and fans in the seats.”

“I encourage our players to educate their families of the rules and history of girls lacrosse,” Marvin said.

In some pockets of Vermont — the greater Burlington, Montpelier/Barre and Rutland areas, and their bedroom communities — the ref shortage isn’t as much of a problem.

In some places along the state’s borders, athletic directors have been able to find officials from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York to cross the border and officiate, a frequent need when it comes to field hockey and girls lacrosse.

In the Northeast Kingdom, the shortage is so bad that, between North Country Union High School, St. Johnsbury Academy and Lyndon Institute — all historically large, strong athletic schools — only one school can have a home game on any day. There just aren’t enough field hockey or girls lacrosse refs up that way to cover more than that.

“I mean, I know personally that, if you asked me to explain what obstruction was on a field hockey field, I would definitely need to consult a rulebook first,” Langevin said.

He said he knows there’s a shortage of officials, but “it’s not really affected us too badly, honestly.” Part of that could be Waterbury’s size and its proximity to both Burlington and Montpelier.

But it’s his job, and the job of other ADs around the state, to make sure the coaches and players aren’t distracted from the task at hand: playing their best and winning.

Vigneau and Marvin both said their bosses do a good job with that.

About Tim Messier, Lamoille’s athletic director, Marvin said, “Tim does an amazing job securing referees for our games, and so I am insulated from that stress. Our referees are passionate and knowledgeable of the game and I think they do a terrific job.”

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