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Bellingham game officials long awaited word about the possibility of officiating another sports game

A referee holding a flag walks along the sideline of a soccer field. Bellingham high school soccer officials are preparing to return to the season with COVID-19 mandated restrictions. // Courtesy of Tania Dimas via Pixabay

By Daniel Hornbuckle

With the return of high school sports, the wait is finally over for coaches and athletes anxious to get back to competing. 

They’re not the only ones. 

Local referees are also looking forward to putting their signature striped shirts back on, lacing up their sneakers, throwing hand signals and blowing their whistles.

“I feel good about the return to sports, especially for athletes who've been separated from their peers and unable to compete,” said Josh Nielsen, Whatcom County high school soccer assignor for Whatcom County Soccer Referee Association. “The kids missed it, and so did we.”

Since March 2020, referees have been sidelined along with coaches and athletes. When COVID-19 lockdowns were put in place, referees were forced to hang up their shirts and whistles not knowing if they’d ever get on the field or court again. 

Now that restrictions have been lifted with the implementation of Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Roadmap to Recovery plan, high schools can resume competition for low- to moderate-risk sports such as swimming, volleyball and soccer.

“We’ve been allowed to have a few practices with modifications and restrictions since last October,” said Andria Fountain, girls varsity soccer coach at Sehome High School. “It’s nice to have some of  those restrictions lifted so we can focus on playing as a team instead of just practicing.”

Although sports seasons are shortened, girls’ high school soccer teams are scheduled to play at least 12 games between Feb. 16  and March 17.

“It’s exciting,” said Aidan Pintuff, a former Black Hills High School soccer player who has refereed high school soccer for eight years. “They haven’t played in a while, but the vibe and level of physicality was the same as in last year’s competitions.” 

Pintuff officiated his first girls’ soccer game Saturday, Feb. 20.

So far, there has been no shortage of referees for local high school games. A national survey of 20,000 sports officials taken in August 2020 by Referee Magazine reported that 32.5% of high school referees said they do not feel safe officiating sports. Fortunately, that is not the case in Bellingham. Nielsen said he expects most of his officials to be available. 

“I have about 25 refs available right now,” Nielsen said. “A handful have opted out until more folks are vaccinated, but the turnout has been solid.”

Despite high COVID-19 numbers in Bellingham being reported on the Washington State Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard, referees are optimistic the mitigation guidelines set in place by Washington Interscholastic Activities Association will prevent further COVID-19 transmission.

“We are making the necessary adjustments, following protocols and using common sense,” Fountain said. “Everyone is willing to be flexible and adapt in whatever ways will make that possible.”

According to WIAA mitigation guidelines for girls’ soccer, facial coverings are required for coaches, game officials and athletes at all times. Locker rooms are not available. Athletes must bring their own water bottles. All equipment must be cleaned and sanitized after set up and before each game. Athletes cannot share pennies.

“It’s highly unlikely there will be any cases with all of the stringent protocols in place,” Nielsen said. “I have stressed common sense in maintaining distance and sustained contact so as to avoid this scenario. Per other assignors and folks in similar roles, contact tracing is a nightmare ... so we're doing everything possible to avoid that situation.”

In addition to coach and athlete restrictions, game officials must also make sure that only athletes touch the balls, prohibit hand touching during substitutions and place team benches on opposite sides of the field and possibly at diagonals to minimize interactions and limit sidelines to essential people. 

Violation of rules can result in suspensions and game stoppage.

“Masks are now considered part of an athlete’s equipment,” Pintuff said. “If a mask falls off, it’s an equipment malfunction and can result in a yellow card. We have complete and total ability to drop the game and end it right there.”

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, game officials are optimistic that the soccer season will be successful and there will be few, if any, game cancellations due to COVID-19 transmission.

“Not to beat a dead horse, but with all the safeguards in place here, I wouldn't be surprised if not a single person contracted the virus in these shortened seasons,” Nielsen said.


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