• Photo/Tom Pantaleo - Franklin’s baseball team had to postpone a home game last week because no umpires were available. The game against Pisgah was rescheduled for April 1.
    Photo/Tom Pantaleo - Franklin’s baseball team had to postpone a home game last week because no umpires were available. The game against Pisgah was rescheduled for April 1.

Umpire shortage hits spring sports

It was sunny, the temperature was nearly 80 degrees and a breeze was blowing on March 15. In other words, it was an ideal day to play a baseball game.
   Instead of playing a game against Pisgah like originally scheduled, Franklin’s baseball team practiced. That’s because FHS wasn’t assigned any umpires for the game and had to postpone it.
   An umpire shortage has hit Western North Carolina this spring. It’s affecting middle schools in addition to high school baseball and softball teams.
   Macon Middle School hosted home games Thursday. The baseball and softball games each had a home plate umpire but no field umpire.
   Athletic directors and booking agents point to a couple of reasons as to why there is a shortage of people willing to call games this spring. The primary reason is likely related to a local booking agent retiring.
   Herb Oxendine resigned his position as regional supervisor of the Mountain West Sports Officials around late August or early September. He was in charge of recruiting umpires and organizing what games they would attend for schools in Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Graham, Clay and Cherokee counties.
   When Oxendine resigned, rather than replace him, the supervisor officials at the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) chose to have Phillip Allen take over the area this spring, with the expectation of opening the job up for applicants at a later date.
   Allen is the regional supervisor of the Western North Carolina Sports Officials. His office is located in Hendersonville, and he had previously been in charge of schools in the Asheville and Hendersonville areas.
Allen’s workload has increased significantly this spring, and he’s now overseeing 30-35 high schools.
   “He was put in a very difficult situation,” Oxendine said. “He’s really good at what he does, but he was put in a difficult situation. He’s not familiar with umpires over here, who goes to what games, the recruiting you have to do for umpires. So it’s really difficult for him to be where he’s at.”
   Allen has been so busy that he sent an email to middle school athletic directors notifying them he won’t be able to staff any more of their games. Each school is now in charge of finding their umpires.
   MMS athletic director Matt Bradley said the Panthers should be OK, with only four more regular season home games left. Middle schools aren’t sanctioned by the NCHSAA, therefore they’re allowed to have only one certified umpire instead of the two required at the high school level.
   “So that gives us little more freedom,” Bradley said.
   MMS baseball coach Ken Neitz said having one umpire didn’t affect any calls in the Panthers 15-10 win over Waynesville. However, making calls from behind home plate when the action is at second base is bound to make things difficult.
   “If the game is a closer one with teams that like to steal, it definitely would (affect calls),” Neitz said. “I hate to say it, but the age and condition of the umpire would also affect the game.”
   On days with many games, finding enough umpires is an issue. That’s what happened last week when Franklin and Pisgah were supposed to play on a Tuesday, but it didn’t get staffed.
   Franklin athletic director Jay Brooks checked the arbiter, an online system schools use to ensure umpires have been assigned to games, a couple days before the conference matchup. Two 0’s indicated no umpires had been assigned, so Brooks contacted FHS coach Ryan Raby and let him know he should notify Pisgah and reschedule it.
   “We can’t play with parent referees,” Brooks said.
   Allen realizes the umpire shortage, combined with him having to staff 30-plus schools, is far from an ideal situation.
   “It’s very unfortunate,” he said. “We need to service the schools. That’s my job. I failed to be able to do that appropriately the first two weeks of the season.”
   Allen believes another possible reason for the umpire shortage is because many people are tired of the verbal abuse.
   “A lot of officials who have been doing this are not interested in taking the abuse anymore,” he said. 
   “The young officials who are getting into it don’t stay because of that.”
   Brooks called it a “big blow” when Oxendine resigned.
   “Herb did a really good job at communicating and taking care of the officials and schools,” Brooks said.
   The hope is no other games are affected the rest of the spring, and Brooks said it appears all of the FHS baseball and softball games are staffed at the moment.
   Allen said things are still tight on certain days.
“Keep an eye on things,” he said. “I think they’re smoothing out, but we’re not there yet.”

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