Younger referees detail potential solution to WIAA ref shortage

The WIAA continues to face referee shortages this fall, even in the bigger sports.

The number of registered officials for football season is down 26 percent. Basketball is down 39 percent, and wrestling is down 45 percent.

Some younger officials in the region want to help end the shortage with a potential solution.

“There’s nothing like Friday night lights.”

Being a part of what happens under those Friday night lights is what can get people like 57-year-old Scott Koepnick and 20-year-old Cade Murray to pick up a whistle.

“I always for some reason when I was young looked at refs,” said Murray. “I wanted to be that guy. I don’t know why, but I thought it was something really cool that people did.”

Murray and 25-year-old Cole McDonald are some of the younger officials you’ll see on a Friday.

“The first game I ever did, I was a sub on a random crew I’d never met any of them before,” McDonald said. “I remember walking into a school and getting asked if I was old enough to be able to ref that game.”

“When I first started, like everyone else, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know anything,” Murray said.

These days they have several years of experience under the belts and they love giving back to the community as officials. Recruiting other people their age to do the same, however, isn’t easy.

“I used to bring some of my buddies to weekend basketball tournaments to ref with me,” McDonald said. “What would usually happen is they’d ref a couple games, get yelled at the entire time because they didn’t know what they were doing, and then never come back.”

They say structure is needed to ease a new ref into the job, and that’s why they joined the Wisconsin River Officials Association. It’s a group that merges young and older officials to break down film together to learn how to become better on the job.

“It’s great because it’s a training ground, and then you work your way up to where you’re helping train people. It’s just an endless cycle,” said Murray.

The group also helps assign officials to games so the learning process can continue on gameday.

“We’re going to take an up-and-coming official and pair them up with a veteran,” Koepnick said.

Offering a strong foundation early is what Koepnick says helped him to stick around for 31 years.

“I had people who were mentors who helped me do it the right way.”

And that same mentorship on a larger scale might create a new generation that’ll stick around just as long.

“We want to keep people in this,” Murray said. “If you can get connected with someone who can teach you and who you can watch and learn from, then that is going to help you a ton.”