Help Wanted / Pandemic-related shortage has schools scrambling to find contest officials

Umpire Donald Heichel relays Floyd Central substitutions to Columbus North baseball coach Ben McDaniel at Columbus North, Friday, April 23, 2021. Paige Grider for The Republic

As the COVID-19 pandemic has led to some high school athletes and coaches having to spend parts of their seasons in quarantine, another key element of competition has been affected as well.

Game and contest officials.

Because of some officials having to quarantine due to contact tracing or contracting COVID — and with some officials taking the year off because of the pandemic — it has led to a shortage of available game officials for the multitude of events being contested. That mostly has hit home for local schools this spring.

“It’s really just on the baseball side,” Columbus East athletics director Pete Huse said. “There’s a big shortage, that’s for sure. We’ve either gone with just one umpire, or with luck, just constantly staying after it, we find them. It’s a very challenging process.”

Huse just found a second umpire for Tuesday’s JV baseball game with Bedford North Lawrence on Monday. Other schools, including Columbus North, haven’t been as fortunate.

The Class 4A No. 1 Bull Dogs had to cancel their April 17 home baseball game against 4A No. 5 Center Grove because they couldn’t find umpires. That game has not been rescheduled.

“It’s just a struggle because you have a lot of umpires in quarantine because of COVID, or they have COVID themselves,” North athletics director Brian Lewis said. “Also, you have a shortage because there’s not a lot of umpires who are coming into the game to officiate. Hopefully, you start to get some momentum as the season moves forward so you have more umpires that want to do baseball.”

The same day the baseball game against Center Grove was to be played, North was hoping to conduct its track and field invitational that had been rained out the previous weekend. But the timer the Bull Dogs had scheduled for the original date had committed to another meet the following weekend, and a replacement could not be found.

Lewis said some older officials in all sports have been leery about working this year because of the pandemic.

“I would say the older generation that officiates basketball, baseball, football, they have had some issues of whether they want to officiate a game or not,” Lewis said. “We’ve had that in football, and we’ve had it in basketball, as well.”

Huse said he started this baseball season paying $67.50 per umpire per game. That figure has jumped to $95 because of the demand.

“That’s what most schools are paying right now just to get them,” Huse said. “Everything is causing a hardship, but it’s more of a hardship not having umpires than not having a game.”

To make up for its lost reveune from decreased ticket sales, Huse has put off buying new uniforms for its teams. East athletes are having to pay for their awards patches, and coaches are having to pay for their own memberships in state or national coaching organizations.

“We’ve had to cut back in other areas,” Huse said. “We’re in desperate need of getting windscreens put on our fencing, and we can’t do that. We’re going to make it this year, but it’s going to take awhile to recoup from the affects of COVID.”

Meanwhile, at least one smaller school has been mostly immune to the problems that have plagued its nearby counterparts this spring. Hauser athletics director Tyler Phillips hasn’t had problems finding umpires.

“When it comes to officials, I’m a year ahead, and I’ve been fortunate that any cancellations or any rainouts that we’ve had, guys I had scheduled that (rescheduled) night were available,” Phillips said. “So I haven’t had any issues.”