Match official Al Rivers signals to the scorer’s table as Marysville Pilchuck’s Ikaika Nawelhi looks to pin Arlington’s Connor Stockman on Jan. 25 in Marysville. (Kevin Clark / The Daily Herald)

Match official Al Rivers signals to the scorer’s table as Marysville Pilchuck’s Ikaika Nawelhi looks to pin Arlington’s Connor Stockman on Jan. 25 in Marysville. (Kevin Clark / The Daily Herald)

Snohomish County wrestling officials feeling the pinch

A statewide shortage of experienced wrestling officials is acutely felt as the postseason begins.

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Wrestling Officials Association, 23 members strong, gathered in a banquet room at Shawn O’Donnell’s American Grill and Irish Pub in Everett on Monday for its regular meeting on the eve of the 2018 postseason.

The agenda included nominations and elections for vacant officer positions for next year and a live refresher on how to spot the MMA-style choke holds — illegal in high school wrestling — that have become more prevalent during the regular season.

But the most pressing and vexing association business was the task of deploying the group’s top officials to the six locations they’d be needed during sub-regional weekend.

The services of 15 officials would be required: Four at the 4A tournament at Glacier Peak High School on Friday and Saturday, and three for the 3A North event both days at Stanwood. The SCWOA will not staff the 3A South tourney on Saturday at Shorecrest High School, leaving that to their comrades from King County.

The three officials at Cedarcrest’s 2A event would only work Saturday, as would the two at Sultan (1A), one at Bellingham (girls) and one at Darrington (2B). The SCWOA also will provide one official to the Northwest 2A tourney in Sedro-Woolley.

The problem facing the handful of men who represent the association’s senior leadership is that they believe they have 12, maybe 13 officials they consider experienced enough to work postseason matches.

Small gains have been made by the association to try to alleviate the strain caused by the effects of Father Time on its longest-tenured officials and the difficulty in convincing younger would-be senior officials to stick it out through growing pains, and those victories were celebrated at Monday’s meeting.

But the forecast is more bad than good.

It’s a sobering night for the older officials, a harsh reminder that if they don’t commit themselves to mentorship and retention of young members, there’ll be no one left to replace them when they eventually hang up their whistles.

“There are two or three officials that are probably not ready for district tournaments, but we’ll surround them with more experienced guys,” said O’Donnell, a 25-year wrestling official and the owner of the restaurant that hosts association meetings and banquets.

“It’s not necessarily a lack of officials, it’s a lack of good officials,” added Gregg Ortega, who has been officiating for 45 years. “If you put a younger official out there and they make a bad call, and the coaches go nuts, they don’t come back.”

It’s an issue being debated in similar meetings across the state. Of the 370 Washington Officials Association members who regularly worked wrestling matches in 2016-17, just 320 returned to begin the 2017-18 season.

That 14 percent reduction in the wrestling work force set off alarm bells for WOA Executive Director Todd Stordahl, who said the body is reviewing each of the 50 departures and searching for any common threads.

“We’re down to only needing 100 for Feb. 10 (regionals) and 36 for the next week (Mat Classic), and for those we’re taking the best of the group, but the week before we need a lot more than that,” said Stordahl, who added that the regional and state tournaments are the only ones that are assigned out of his office.

Local associations staff and handle all logistics for sub-regional tournaments.

Stordahl said there are currently 1,800 basketball officials and 1,000 football officials statewide, amplifying any loss in membership of wrestling officials.

And the pool of potential wrestling officials is naturally smaller than that of either of those other sports because of wrestling’s status as a relative niche sport. Only one of the 23 members of the Snohomish County Wrestling Officials Association does not have wrestling experience.

With all that wrestling officials have to face — dwindling numbers, marathon Saturday tournaments, overzealous coaches and parents — there is room for guarded optimism, the hope that a new generation of officials in the 25 to 45 age range will march onward.

Cecilio Martinez is a big part of the Snohomish County Wrestling Officials Association’s future.

At the age of 35, he has the fifth-highest rating of any wrestling official in the state in terms of WOA evaluations, and will represent the Association at Mat Classic on Feb. 15-16, along with Ortega and Scott Helsel.

He was also elected vice president for the coming year at Monday’s meeting.

Martinez has been an official since he graduated from Mariner High School in 2001, where he wrestled for the Marauders. He now mentors the younger or just less-experienced officials who are trying to make their way.

Among those are Touraan Smith, Tim Douglass, Marcus Requa, Parker Burns and Amanda Layton, who this year became the first female official to ever join the Snohomish County Wrestling Officials Association. She worked mostly middle-school matches this year, as well as a few girls tournaments.

Layton, 28, wrestled at Marysville Pilchuck before graduating in 2008. A chance meeting with senior official Cliff McKinlay spurred a return to the sport, and she’ll be back next season.

“They haven’t scared me away,” she said.

Such person-to-person contact is the best way to recruit new officials, said Terry Beckstead, a 44-year wrestling official from Tacoma and the wrestling representative on the WOA’s Executive Board.

“You have to make connections with people, and get them into a place where they have that family feel,” Beckstead said. “Unless you get that, it’s really hard to hold onto people. … If you have that, you’ll get them to stay for a year, and if you can get them to stay for three, you’ve got a pretty good shot with them. If they stay for five years, you know you’ve got them, because they’re getting something out of it.

“We have to make the local associations realize that it’s about recruiting at their level. Go to the high school teams’ banquets and tell the kids that if they want to stay involved with the sport, they can go into coaching, or into reffing.”

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