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Umpire numbers dwindling amidst officiating shortage

Andy Denault has found a connection with local youth sports he can’t shake.

As a certified official in baseball, softball, basketball, football and volleyball for 13 years, the 58-year-old Bradley resident has found the void that was left in his life when he stopped coaching his own children’s youth sports teams years ago.

Denault and his officiating partner, Alan West, a 10-year veteran in baseball, softball, basketball and football, who also began officiating as a way to connect with area sports and youth alike, have been seen at various area ballparks this spring on any day that ends in “Y” and didn’t welcome rain showers.

“I love being around the kids and they’re totally different than what you’d think,” West said. “There’s a lot of good friendship and sportsmanship amongst them because they know each other from travel sports and have been playing [together and against each other] for years.”

And while part of their heavy workloads are due to their passions for second jobs that feel more to them like hobbies, they’re also working every day out of necessity.

Illinois is facing a sports catastrophe with a lack of officials.

THE PROBLEM

In a story last month from Springfield Fox affiliate AJ Gersh, a survey of IHSA officials cited a drop from 13,700 officials a decade ago to less than 10,000 now, creating a tight crunch on available officials.

And in an area noted for its baseball and softball passions, from the youth levels on up, that dwindling number is especially being felt locally.

“It’s never been like this,” Denault said of the umpiring shortage this spring. “I’ve never seen it to where I’m getting emails the day of games with that many games still needing umpires.”

West and Denault are booked as a pair in their various sports through the end of next basketball season, but have seen themselves split up to umpire one game apiece, even at the varsity level.

But where high school sports are being hit the hardest are the smaller levels. Bishop McNamara Catholic High School athletic director Aaron Hamilton said the Fightin’ Irish baseball program had to postpone or cancel three junior varsity games and their conference — the Metro Suburban Conference — created a rule this year permitting one umpire per lower-level game to help ensure there were enough to go around.

“There aren’t enough officials to go around,” Hamilton said. “Our assigners do multiple conferences and because of the shortage we’ve had to go down to just one official for JV games.”

THE ROOT OF THE ISSUE

West said that after COVID-19 wiped out a year of prep sports and forced masks for almost an additional year, most officials never came back.

“Before COVID a lot of older guys would sit around and wait for a basketball game to start, go officiate for a few hours and go back home,” West said. “I think after not having anything and then having to wear masks, that was almost two years and some people were just like, ‘OK, I’m done,’ and didn’t come back.”

Denault and West’s assigner, Jordyn Cohen of the Illinois Officials Association and the president of the South Suburbs Officials Association, gave credence to West’s claim, but noted that the pandemic simply accelerated a regression that was already in the process.

He claimed the umpiring drought is much more severe than the IHSA has seen across all sports.

“I think that, for years, people sensed it was coming, but not as fast as it came and it came really quick,” Cohen said. “Really, after COVID, it went that much quicker, and we’re down more than 50 percent in Illinois for registered baseball umpires.”

Whether it be as the head of umpires for the Bradley-Bourbonnais Youth Softball League or at Trinity Academy, where he serves as the athletic director, softball coach and boys and girls basketball coach, Mike Lawrence said the same group of umpires are back every year, but they’re not getting any younger.

“We’re not getting any younger and there aren’t a whole lot of younger people that want to come out, enjoy the game and have a positive impact,” Lawrence said. “... The 25-to-40-year-olds who used to play the game and still want to be part of the game, for whatever reason — and there could be 1,000 of them — aren’t coming and we’re short umpires.”

THE MESSAGE FOR PARENTS

West and Denault both noted that coaches have been more understanding and supportive of the umpire shortage and situations, particularly when the pair is split and working a game alone.

That’s not something, however, Denault said translated to the stands all the time, and that umpires aren’t the only ones facing the brunt of unnecessary comments from outside the field of play.

“Parents need to understand their kid won’t make it to the majors just because you called them out for stepping off the base at 12 years old,” Denault said. “And they know when they swung at a pitch over their head, you don’t need to remind them.

“They just need to be more supportive.”

Despite what they may hear from the peanut gallery, Cohen hopes umpires realize just how grateful those connected to the game are for their increased workloads.

“The appreciation for those guys is there and you cant thank them enough,” Cohen said. “They buckle up the bootstraps and go do it.”

THE FINANCIAL FACTOR

With the changing supply and demand, Cohen noted the abilities that organizations like travel teams and even some Little Leagues have to offer more pay than high school, particularly the freshmen and sophomore levels, and in much tidier fashion.

“There are travel teams and Little Leagues paying more money for umpires than high schools,” Cohen said. “And travel teams and tournaments play time limit baseball, so in a lot of cases they can do three or four games at a travel tournament faster than a high school doubleheader, and make a lot more money doing it.”

That’s something that causes potential concern for Lawrence, both for his athletes at Trinity and especially the softball players at BBYSL.

“I’m afraid, particularly in the summer, it will be a ‘who’s the highest bidder?’ type of thing,” Lawrence said. “You can’t go in a rec league and just keep jacking the prices up to where it’s not affordable.

“Travel ball is a little different, but even there, the higher it goes, the higher the expectation is.”

A POTENTIAL SOLUTION

With his deep connections to prep and youth sports, Lawrence has considered an idea that he thinks could intertwine education and athletics in a school setting, providing more work opportunities for young people and helping fill a glaring hole in youth sports.

“I’ve heard of different places allowing officiating classes as PE [electives] and that’s a good thing,” Lawrence said. “You’re able to do the teaching part, you can watch game film, and as long as they show up and participate, let them take the [certification] test like [officials] take the test.”

Lawrence said that those interested in officiating at the BBYSL — at any level — can visit bbysl.com for more information. Those interested in learning more about becoming a high school umpire can contact Cohen at his email address, jordan@ilofficials.com. Anyone interested in learning more about becoming a certified IHSA official in any of the 16 sports it offers can visit ihsa.org/officials.


Local
Snipes, Slone seek Illinois revival

KANKAKEE — Primary Election Day is more than one month away and the two Democratic Party candidates vying to unseat 79th Illinois House District State Rep. Jackie Haas squared off before a sparse audience Tuesday evening.

Kankakeean Robert Ellington-Snipes and Park Forest resident and village trustee Erin Slone faced off in the fourth-floor meeting room of the Kankakee Public Library as they sought votes for the June 28 Primary Election to take on Haas in the Nov. 8 General Election.

Slone, a former investment banker, works as a business consultant for the strategic planning nonprofit organization, Attune to Grow, Inc., based in Naperville. Snipes is a supervisor at Kankakee High School for remote learning students. He is a 1978 graduate of Momence High School.

A resident of Park Forest, Slone’s home is at the very northern edge of the 79th District.

While the candidates differ on how the state goes about conducting its business of government, they both agreed the state must do more in terms of limiting taxation as Illinoisans grapple with high taxes, notably property taxes.

The state has been losing residents for several years, particularly to the neighboring states of Indiana and Wisconsin, as disgruntled residents seek a lower cost of living outside of Illinois’ borders.

The debate was hosted by the Kankakee County Branch of the NAACP.

Snipes, a 15-year Kankakee County Board member, who also serves on the board of the Kankakee County Housing Authority, said Gov. J.B. Pritzker is on the correct path with his infrastructure program across the state.

But, Snipes, 61, who sought the state representative position two years ago before losing in the primary, said the state must take an in-depth look at which programs it is funding.

He noted funding for all programs must be re-evaluated to make sure these efforts are serving the state’s residents in the proper fashion, meaning some programs could be out of date.

Slone, 42, noted her home community of Park Forest is at the epicenter when it comes to the cost of living. She said Park Forest has the highest property tax rate in the state, while adding Kankakee has the highest rate within Kankakee County.

The 2001 graduate of the University of Chicago, where she earned an economics degree and then a masters degree in data driven marketing from Northwestern University in 2014, said expecting growth with high taxation is difficult at best.

“We have to look at the way our schools are funded. The state has come quite short of funding of our schools,” she noted. Residents are leaving the state for locations such as Indiana and Wisconsin where “taxes are quite a bit less.”

Another expense Illinois residents are dealing with is the cost of gasoline at the pump.

Illinois per-gallon gas cost came in Monday at an average of $4.83. That figure was well above the United States average of $4.48. Part of the cost for the fuel is the state’s gas tax, which at 39.2 per gallon is the fifth-highest mark in the state.

While fuel taxes are used to make transportation improvements, the taxes are driving up prices.

Even though there has been a state freeze on the 39-cent tax, motorists are still paying a premium at the pump.

Slone said investment must be made to reduce the nation’s dependency on fossil fuels, such as oil.

She pointed to greater use of public transportation. She also pointed to increased reliance on clean energy such as solar and wind power. She also noted greater use of electric vehicles as a way of reducing dependence on oil.

The cost of fuel has certainly increased in the past two years. It jumped even higher due to Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, an oil-rich nation.

“The more [gasoline] we buy, the more it is going to cost,” Snipes noted.

The candidates also discussed issues regarding fair housing for people being released from the Illinois Department of Corrections, the state’s pension issues and the U.S. Supreme Court’s pending ruling regarding the abortion issue as it relates to the Roe v. Wade ruling.


Local
New superintendent selected for Pembroke School District

PEMBROKE TOWNSHIP — Pembroke Community Consolidated School District 259 has selected its next superintendent, and the district did not have to look far.

Nicole Terrell-Smith, assistant superintendent for business services at Kankakee School District 111 for the past year, was selected to replace outgoing Pembroke Superintendent Marcus Alexander.

Alexander has been superintendent and chief school business official in Pembroke for the past four years.

He announced his resignation in early April to accept a position as superintendent of Calumet Public School District 132 in Calumet Park.

The Pembroke School Board approved the hire of Terrell-Smith during a special meeting April 26.

According to board documents, Terrell-Smith will serve as superintendent on a three-year performance contract at a salary not to exceed $160,000, plus full benefits, pending final contract negotiations.

In a letter to the community, Pembroke School Board President Ira Sneed noted that Alexander will transition out of the district at the end of this school year, and the board is thankful for his leadership over the past four years.

“We are excited to have Dr. Terrell-Smith on board, and to work with her to take our district to the next level,” Sneed said in the letter. “In the very near future, we will share multiple opportunities to meet and get to know our new superintendent.”

Terrell-Smith took over for Rob Grossi, previous assistant superintendent for business services for Kankakee School District 111 for seven years, on July 1, 2021.

Terrell-Smith’s resignation from District 111, effective June 30, 2022, was approved by the Kankakee School Board on May 9.

Terrell-Smith was previously assistant superintendent of schools for Hazel Crest School District 152.5.

She had been the director of business services at Hazel Crest for six years prior to her promotion to assistant superintendent.

Terrell-Smith received a master’s degree in educational administration and also has a chief school business official endorsement from Governors State University; in 2018, she obtained her doctorate in educational leadership from the University of St. Francis, according to Kankakee board documents.


Local
Gov. signs 'Too Young to Test'

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has signed a measure that prohibits the Illinois State Board of Education from requiring students in pre-kindergarten through second grade to take standardized tests.

The bill was filed in January by state Rep. Christine Pacione-Zayaz.

Senate Bill 3986 creates the “Too Young to Test Act.” Under the legislation, the Illinois State Board of Education is prohibited from requiring a school district to administer a standardized assessment for students through second grade, unless for diagnostic purposes.

The proposal came in response to consideration from ISBE to begin testing younger grades in math and reading.

State Rep. Lindsey Lapointe is a co-sponsor of the legislation and explained what this bill would entail during a House debate session last month.

“This is a bill that protects our youngest students who are kindergarten, first or second grade, from the harms and stresses of standardized testing,” Lapointe said.

Under the legislation, testing for students in these grades would be optional, as schools could still opt into testing students.

Republican state Rep. Avery Bourne said the legislation does nothing but take away a chance for schools to be reimbursed by the state for testing.

“This bill will not mean there are any fewer tests,” Bourne said. “K through 2 students are already required to be assessed through the Black Caucus Education pillar, which many of you voted for,” Bourne said during the debate.

“A huge majority of schools are already testing so all this does is allows local schools to not be reimbursed for the tests.”

Lapointe said in a statement that testing students this young does nothing but cause problems for the students and their classrooms.

“Formal testing procedures do not effectively measure what our youngest students under the age of 8 can or cannot do,” LaPointe said. “Instead, these tests inappropriately change classroom focus and can be a cause of inequity in our education system. This new law will help redirect classroom attention toward more proven learning strategies.”

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