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Strength in numbers

It’s an experiment that has true benefit and merit, but also one with a big hill to climb before permanent implementation throughout Oregon.

After years of statewide discussion — and prodding by the likes of South Medford athletic director Dennis Murphy and Vern Loy, commissioner of the Rogue Valley Basketball Officials Association — a three-person officiating crew has been utilized on a voluntary basis this season for basketball games.

Whether the experiment lasts for more than just one year will be up for re-evaluation at the end of this season but, so far, the three-person crews have been a welcome addition for Southern Oregon teams at the Class 6A, 5A and 3A schools.

“I started this crusade 10 years ago because it’s what the game needs and what the officials associations need to retain more people,” said Murphy. “It’s a win-win for everybody. My fear is they’ve waited too long.”

Murphy and Loy were part of an Oregon School Activities Association committee that researched the use of three officials instead of two — as is standard in 36 states — and the OSAA finally agreed this year to give each conference the option on a voluntary basis. Two-person crews will still be utilized for the state playoffs and state tournament.

At the 6A level, the Southwest Conference, which includes North Medford and South Medford, chose to adopt three-person crews when available, along with the Metro League and the 6A Portland Interscholastic League. The 5A Midwestern League, which includes Crater, Eagle Point and Ashland, is joined by the Columbia River Conference in giving it a go, as well as the 3A Southern Cascade League, which includes Cascade Christian, St. Mary’s and Rogue River.

“So far I think it’s serving its purpose,” said Murphy. “I really believe that three people get a better view of what’s going on. Am I still going to dislike some of the calls, I am, but that’s just part of the game. I still believe that’s what the game needs.”

From an official’s standpoint, Loy said the move from two- to three-person crews is not an easy one but definitely one that has its advantages.

“You have less physical trauma because you’re only doing X amount of running compared to a two-person,” said Loy, who is in his 39th year with the RVBOA. “Also, your ability to communicate with the benches and the players is better because you’ve always got somebody close to answer questions or talk. It’s better for the game because you have a third set of eyes watching the play and you’ve also got a third person who is able to call out verbally to prevent fouls.”

The adjustment to three-person crews began with some training in June and the RVBOA used the Abby’s Holiday Classic to hone its skills in preparation of the conference season.

“It is a huge adjustment but one we’re getting better at,” said Kent Stafford, president of the RVBOA, on moving from two- to three-person crews. “It’s just the mechanics and where you stand that take time, but there’s totally a benefit with three.”

“We’re missing so much stuff on two-person mechanics,” added Stafford. “If the trail official has a one-on-one and they’re closely guarded, he’s dealing with two people and the other person has eight. When you’re dealing with moving screens and cutters, screens below and double teams, you can’t catch everything and there’s more guessing in two-person. What they’re trying to do in three-person is to take the guessing out of it.”

Stafford said having three officials has helped by trimming down each official’s area of focus and, although it’s still a workout getting up and down the court in today’s all-out contests, the wear and tear from each game has been lessened.

“I just think they end up in a better position to have a better view of the call they believe they should make or has occurred,” Murphy said of three-person crews. “I’m not saying they’re not trying to get in better position (in two-person crews) but it just becomes harder because there are bigger, faster, stronger kids these days.”

Adding a third official, at least in most cases thus far, has not resulted in more fouls being called, contrary to popular opinion.

“When you first start three-person, most people feel like there’s going to be more fouls called,” said Loy. “Data shows that’s not the case at all, but it doesn’t cure a badly played game. You’re still going to have 40-plus fouls if you’re not playing the game well.”

To offset the change in cost for having three officials, the OSAA has standardized that three-person crews get paid 85 percent of their usual rate, meaning a dip from $63 to $53.50 per game. While some officials associations balked at that stance, Loy said it was a non-issue among his group because they value the benefit of the move to three-person crews.

“There is an issue there but none of my people voiced any concerns,” said Loy. “They like the fact that it’s not as hard on them and better for the game. This group has a real good attitude.”

While it would seem going to permanent three-person crews is a no-brainer, it’s not that easy.

To have three-person crews, an officials association must have enough resources to spread itself out and make that happen. In the RVBOA alone, Loy said he’s lost almost 25 percent of his basketball officials since 2010 and it’s become more difficult to recruit and develop replacements.

“It’s a tough time to start doing three-person when you’re losing so many people from your cadre,” said Loy. “Definitely there are huge advantages to having three-person, it’s just that you have to have those people available. If the OSAA had OK’d this six, seven or eight years ago, I still would’ve had close to a 60-member cadre. Now with availability, sickness, injury or occupation, I have less than 40 on a given night. I would’ve been able to retain people that dropped out because of injuries since the physical trauma would’ve been less.”

Of his 39 officials — there are seven additional first-year officials Loy said can’t be realistically added to that total yet — only the top 20 were trained in three-person mechanics. With seven local schools requesting three-person crews, and game nights consisting of freshman, JV and varsity tilts, fulfilling those requests has been a hit-and-miss operation.

“To Vern’s credit, he’s trying awfully hard to make it work,” said Murphy.

Some games have been moved to alternate days to accommodate the lack of available officials, both in Medford and Eugene, so three-person crews can be utilized. Loy said he’s mandated that if it gets to be more than 18 games in a night, there won’t be any three-person crews, and there is no pecking order where higher classifications get first dibs on an extra official. As it is, crews are working doubleheaders or even 2½ games per night even on two-person nights.

“It’s a treat for me to put three people out there … but we can’t do it very often,” said Loy.

The combination of a steady decrease in number of officials statewide plus the added expense for already cash-strapped schools and no OSAA mandate to make it happen is what Loy called “the perfect storm for three-person not working.”

“Right now, being on every end of it to push to get it done,” said Loy, who is part of an OSAA committee for official retention, “I don’t have high hopes for it but I’ll be greatly disappointed if it doesn’t work. And I know a lot of people not involved with officiating, per se, but involved with the love of the sport will be disappointed.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

A three-person officiating crew worked the South Medford-Thurston boys basketball game recently. The referees are, from left, Matt Campbell, Chad Paris and Kent Stafford. JAMIE LUSCH / MAIL TRIBUNE