The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

To most high school girls’ basketball teams, losing a game by more than 100 points would qualify as a major disaster and serious setback to the program. To Saint Paul Academy varsity head coach Willie Taylor and his players, it’s another step in a growing process.

The Spartans, beset with COVID issues and lacking much experience, crossed the river on January 7 to take on a Minnehaha Academy team that was averaging nearly 80 points a game and ranked No. 1 in the state in Class AA. The final score was 121-17 Redhawks. 

“The expectations (for that game) weren’t great,” Taylor said. “I just told our girls to keep playing. And they did.”

SPA quickly put the memory of that night on the back burner. Four days later, the Spartans earned their second win of the season with a 44-32 victory at Nova Classical Academy. It was a step up in what Taylor says is his most enjoyable season ever as a head coach.  

That may seem odd to some, considering Taylor has been a winning coach for three decades. Along the way, he has guided girls’ basketball teams at three different schools—Mounds View, Central and Stillwater—to state tournament berths. His Central teams won Class AAAA titles in 2007 and 2008, and his Stillwater team fell to undefeated Hopkins in the 2020 Class AAAA title game. (He also spent a year as an assistant women’s hoop coach at Hamline.) 

Taylor said he enjoyed his Stillwater stop, but he also felt something was missing. He wanted to be in attendance for events such as plays and concerts in which his daughter, Julia, was participating. At the end of last season, he told Stillwater he wasn’t coming back.

 

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Late in the summer, he learned about the SPA opening. Naomi, his wife, works at the school and Julia was headed there for her freshman year. Retirement could wait.  

“I got hired at the end of August,” Taylor recalled. “I knew little about the team.”

 “This has been the best,” Taylor said. “I’m loving my experience here.”

One of his first tasks started at home. Julia had played basketball when she was younger and Taylor convinced her to take up the sport again. When practice started, Julia found five freshman classmates and an eighth-grader on what’s probably one of the youngest teams in the state.

In short order, Taylor deduced he needed to go back to the basics with his players. “It was dribble, catch, pass and shoot,” he said. “We had a lot of kids who had played either very little or not at all, but these kids are darn bright. They believe what I tell them and we’re getting better.”

That’s all well and good, but nothing encourages players more than success. The first SPA win came in the season’s third game—a 53-31 decision at home over Hope Academy on December 21. January started with a pair of losses. With one exception, Taylor and his team didn’t discuss the second of those losses—the Minnehaha game. The exception was when Julia asked her dad if he had ever lost a game by 100 points before. The answer: No.

As this was being written, the Spartans were 2-6 overall—a far cry from the 32-0 season Taylor’s Central team had in 2006-07. Nevertheless, the veteran coach is having a ball this winter. “This has been the best,” he said. “I’m loving my experience here.”

Wanted: Officials in all shapes, sizes and age 

In mid-December, 71 men and women gathered for a luncheon at Mancini’s Char House on West Seventh Street. Many of them were retired from their full-time jobs, but they all shared a part-time gig—they’d all been or were still sports officials. Tom Perrault, who organized the get-together, was a long-time baseball, football and basketball referee who now handles scoreboard and time clock duties at high school and college games.

“When I was in eighth grade at Saint Mark’s, we used to referee the fifth-grade basketball games,” he recalled. Six years later, Perrault started working high school football and basketball games for the princely sum of $12.50 a contest.

Times have changed a bit. A high school basketball referee working with two compatriots now gets $82 for a varsity game and a little less for a junior varsity match. If you’re good enough, you can progress to the MIAC college level, where officials can earn triple digits for a game. Advance to the NCAA Division I level and that number jumps into the thousands per game. Progress to the pros and the take-home pay runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Those numbers make such employment financially enticing, yet nearly all amateur levels are now struggling to find enough officials in all sports. High school basketball games were once played only on Tuesday and Friday nights. Now games are scheduled on every day but Sunday to find enough people available to officiate.

It gets even trickier for guys like Dawson Blanck, executive director of Minnesota Youth Athletic Services. Blanck decided to team up with the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission and several other organizations, such as the Saint Paul Saints and Minnesota Twins, to form Play Together MN. That group is sponsoring a Referee Expo at the National Sports Center in Blaine from 9-11:30 a.m. Saturday, February 12. The goal is to find ways to convince more young folks to start officiating at the same age as did people like Perrault and former Major League Baseball umpire Tim Tschida, a CDH grad who abandoned his high school playing days to start calling balls and strikes.

“We’re looking for high school kids,” Blanck said. “You can start at the youth level (ages 9-10) and earn $25-$27 a game. You can easily get three or four games a week if you want.”

A combination of things has led to the referee shortage. At the high school and college level, the improvement in the skills of the athletes means that some folks simply can’t keep up and work as long as their predecessors did. There was a time when 60- and 70-year-olds could easily handle a basketball or hockey game. One must be in very good physical and mental shape to do so at that age now.  

But the bigger problem involves issues off the court, field or ice. When Perrault started, it was common for younger officials to work prep or college games outside the metropolitan area. “Nobody wants to travel anymore,” he said.

At the youth level, the big issue involves spectators who simply can’t control themselves. “We need to do a better job of working with the parents,” Blanck said. Translation: Adults who yell profanities at 16-year-old kids working a game where 10-year-olds are playing are not conducive to getting young officials to come back for the next game.

One of the toughest sports for Blanck to find officials for is baseball, where games can be lengthy affairs and are often played in chilly April weather. Add to the mix that there are more teams than ever and the increased participation in sports like soccer, volleyball and lacrosse, and you have a lot greater need for officials than before.  

Perrault agreed with some of the difficulties in finding officials, but he also pointed to some of the attendees at the Mancini’s luncheon who had graduated to the big time. In addition to Tschida, those on hand to greet old comrades included Central grad Tom Barnes, who worked in the NFL for 26 years before retiring, and Harding grad Ken Mauer, who is in his 35th season as an NBA referee. They started like Perrault did and worked their way up the ladder.

In the end, you can’t have games without somebody to oversee them. For more information on the Blaine clinic, visit mnsports.org/referee-expo.

Dave Wright can be reached at dwright53@msn.com.

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