The experience of high school officials and how they helped high school sports stay afloat during COVID-19

Photo of Maggie Vanoni
Jason Crockett (left) officiating a basketball game during a previous season. Photo courtesy of Steve Wodarski.

Jason Crockett (left) officiating a basketball game during a previous season. Photo courtesy of Steve Wodarski.

Maggie Vanoni -- Hearst Connecticut Media

For the first time in 30 years, Steve Richetelli did not officiate high school hockey.

Partly because his new work schedule did not allow the time, but mainly because he believed it would have been too hard to balance focusing on game rules and regulations on top of mandating COVID-19 protocols.

Officiating wouldn’t just be about playing the game, but would now include the responsibility of monitoring players and coaches in following safety protocols and proper mask-wearing.

“I thought I would be more preoccupied reffing worrying about making sure all the kids were doing what they were supposed to be doing than worrying about the game,” said Richetelli, the CIAC ice hockey official representative.

Richetelli is just one of many officials across various sports in Connecticut who chose to opt out of officiating this season due to concerns around the virus and its protocols among high school athletics.

The absence of officials during the 2020-21 school year has forced board associations to assign officials to more games — and more doubleheaders — than ever before. Games look different. Officials have more responsibilities throughout the game to keep themselves, players and coaches safe.

And to many it was all worth it just to give high school athletes the chance to compete in a winter season and now a spring season as well.

“It’s been an adjustment for our officials, just like it’s been an adjustment for the coaches and the players,” said Dan Scavone, the CIAC director of officials.

Before each season, the CIAC works with representatives from official boards of various sports to create protocols for each sport.

In order for the season to run, there would need to be open communication and trust. If an official tested positive for COVID-19, they would alert their board’s assigner, who would then alert the schools that official worked games for. Schools would also alert officiating boards of any cases.

However, despite protocols in place, there would always be an underlying risk involved in officiating games. Because of this, many officials chose to opt out of seasons due to health and safety concerns and the risk of losing time from their jobs outside of officiating.

“People need to understand this is like an avocation as opposed to a vocation for most of these guys,” said Steve Wordarski, a rules interpreter for the New Haven District Board 10 of approved basketball officials. “A lot of guys, they couldn’t afford to be quarantined from their regular jobs if maybe a player or somebody involved in a basketball game tested positive and they were ordered to quarantine.”

Jason Crockett, an executive member for the New Haven District Board 10, opted out of the 2021 basketball season. His wife gave birth in June 2020. He wanted to avoid risking the health of his wife or newborn. Crockett’s wife is also a nurse and works with COVID patients, so he understood the severity of the virus.

“Officiating is a labor of love. A lot of us are in it because we love the game, we love being involved and just the challenge of officiating,” Crockett said. “It’s a sacrifice, but I don’t think it’s a sacrifice that really compares to what people all over the country, all over the world, frankly, have had to deal with with the virus. As much as I love basketball, missing out on a season is a small price to pay to ensure the safety of my child, my wife and in the grand scheme of things knowing how many people have been affected by the virus with death and illness.”

Along with Crockett, about 30 percent of the New Haven District Board 10’s officials opted out of the 2021 season. Wordarski said the board’s 160 officials was the lowest amount he can remember the board has had for a single season.

For hockey, Richetelli said normally there are 120-plus officials for each season. However, in 2020 they had less than 50 percent available due to so many choosing to opt out.

With the lack of officials, both basketball and hockey boards worked with coaches in scheduling games around days when they knew they wouldn’t have available officials.

“Everybody was beyond helpful and wanted to do everything they could to make sure this worked,” Richetelli said. “We were basically prepared as much as we could for everything, but then again you never knew what everything was going to be. If that makes sense, because stuff happened this season that’s never happened before, obviously.”

Doubleheaders became more common for officials despite the efforts in trying to space out games. Wordarski had one official who covered three games in a row one Friday night in February for Wilbur Cross High School.

Officials came to games already dressed and left without access to locker-room showers. Camaraderie was lower than normal. There were no postgame meetups at nearby restaurants, and officials stuck with the same game partner for the entirety of the season instead of switching every game.

During the game, they were responsible for mandating social distance and proper mask-wearing, as well as regulating mask breaks. They’d sanitize balls between periods and bounce them to players instead of handing them off.

“There is an increased anxiety among some of the more vulnerable officials,” Wordarski said. “There’s a little disappointment, I guess would be the right word, at not being afforded the luxury of a locker room and a shower afterward but the guys have been great, they understand that this is hopefully a one-shot deal and that’s it.”

During the CIAC’s month-long indoor track season, longtime throws official Pete Warner officiated 20 meets in 18 days at Bethel High School’s indoor track and field facility.

Meets went faster than normal and allowed for doubleheaders in the same day since schools brought limited numbers of athletes to compete in meets due to safety restrictions.

Despite the risks involved with indoor sports, Warner said he felt comfortable with the protocols in place and never had to give extra warnings to athletes to follow mask mandates.

“I trusted the science. I trusted what they (the CIAC) came up with. I trusted the protocols,” Warner said. “I would not have done it if I had any of that anxiety … Going in I never had a worry and I think the caliber of kids we’re dealing with, they wanted to compete and they knew that that was part of it and I’m sure the coaches drilled it into their heads every meet.”

This spring for softball, all fields must have sanitizing and hand-washing stations available for players, coaches, officials and spectators. Masks are to be worn at all times, but are optional for players playing out on the field, accept for catchers. Home teams are responsible for sanitizing both benches before games while both teams will use their own set of balls when on defense.

Louis Urso, 74, said he immediately washes his umpiring clothes when he returns home from games. During the summer, he often worked long days officiating up to five games in one day since the Plainville Board of USA Approved Softball Umpires had 40 percent of their umpires opt out last year.

“High school officials, it’s almost like community service. You’re really needed,” said Urso.

Last summer, baseball umpires called balls and strikes from behind the pitcher instead of at home plate in order to best social-distance from players.

“It was actually one of the hardest experiences,” said Josh Swabby, president of the Eastern Connecticut Board of Umpires. “The eye level is so much different. That high pitch you think is high might not be as high. It was tough.”

Swabby said half of his board opted out during the summer season last year due to safety concerns. This spring he said he will have 83 of his 100 total members return for the 2021 season since many are more comfortable with this year’s protocols compared to last, including returning the umpire to behind home plate.

“They’ve (the CIAC) really knocked everything down on what needs to be done with baseballs and masks and distancing and things like that,” Swabby said. “I feel really comfortable with the return to play agenda that they had put out.”

With the spring season just starting and already teams facing shutdowns and player sitouts due to contract tracing, officials understand they have to put as much trust in these high school athletes as the athletes put in them to keep the season afloat.

“That’s the thing. We’re just going to have to trust one another and that’s a part of getting through this pandemic is trusting other people that if they’re not feeling well or if they’re not doing well that they can’t play and they tell their coach,” Urso said. “I’m putting trust in the players and I’m sure the players, that catcher, is going to put trust in me to make sure I’m doing everything safely as well if I’m behind the plate that day.”

Despite managing all the protocols and risks, the winter and spring high school sports seasons wouldn’t have been possible without the sacrifices from these officials.

“It’s just great to have some type of normalcy especially for these young athletes and student-athletes,” said longtime high school and college women’s lacrosse official Laura Paro. “It’s been really important that they’ve been able to play at some level somehow.”