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Former wrestler giving back to sport as referee as sport struggles with shortage of officials

Conner Krouse finished his high school wrestling career in 2017 with his arm raised and his head held high.

As a 195-pound senior from Chewelah, Washington, Krouse needed just 50 seconds to pin his opponent from King’s Way Christian to win the third-place match at the state wrestling tournament in the Tacoma Dome.

He earned a medal at Mat Classic in each of the four years of his prep career.

The problem Krouse faced, one he shares with the vast majority of wrestlers across the state of Washington, is that while he had reached the end of his wrestling career, he did not want to be done with wrestling.

“I started wrestling as a little kid. I did little kid wrestling starting when I was 5,” he explained. “I love wrestling.”

The year Krouse took off from his beloved sport after graduation was tough. During breaks from Eastern Washington University he found himself back in the Chewelah practice room working out with the current crop of Cougars that included his brother, Kaden, now a two-time state champion as a junior.

His former wrestling and football coach challenged Krouse to give back to the sport he loves by trading in his singlet for a whistle and becoming a referee.

That’s been a perfect match.

Now in his second season as a wrestling official, Krouse is on the fast track.

“It usually takes four or five years before I schedule a new official to a varsity match,” explained Rich Tschirgi, the assigning secretary for the Spokane area wrestling officials association. “Conner has already done a couple varsity matches for me. He’s really caught on fast.”

New referees start out with middle school wrestling in the fall, Tschirgi said. At first, new officials have a seasoned partner working with them, watching their mechanics and helping them improve their technique.

They then move into the high school season working freshmen and junior varsity matches.

At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

One of the biggest challenges facing youth sports at all levels and all sports – boys and girls – is a shortage of officials.

It’s a challenge that has no easy fix. It takes multiple seasons to prepare and groom a game official for a varsity sport.

“On average, I get a young official for two or three years,” Tschirgi explained. “If they start out as a student, they graduate and leave the area for work. Or they change jobs.

“We have referees who are retired, and I keep them working all the time because they can generally work any game at any time.”

That’s a nationwide trend. A study in Iowa in 2016 found roughly 60% of first- and second-year officials do not return.

Tschirgi disagrees with some of the assumptions made by such studies – concluding that unruly parents are to blame for the shortage.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “When I’m doing a match, I don’t even hear the fans. And if a parent gets out of line we don’t even mess around with them – we go get the athletic director and let them handle it. There have been some parents that have been told they just can’t come back.”

“There are some coaches who can be hotheads,” Krouse said. “But really, they aren’t much of a problem.”

It’s one of the aspects of refereeing a sport like wrestling.

“In football or basketball, you have to learn the mechanics of being a two-person or three-person officiating crew,” Tschirgi explained. “When you work a wrestling match that entire mat is yours. It’s just you. You’re in charge of the whole thing.”

To cover all of the wrestling matches on Tschirgi’s master schedule he ideally needs a roster of about 40 men and women – and yes, he’s actively encouraging women to become wrestling referees.

“We have a lot of matches to cover, and we have a lot of girls matches and girls tournaments in this state,” he said. “I have, maybe, 25 referees available.”

Tschirgi tells his officials to be sure to take their gear with them to work. There are times when he’s calling at 3 p.m. to get an official to a freshman or junior varsity match scheduled to start at 3:30.

Krouse proved himself and earned his promotion, but the shortage moved things along.

“I got to do a University-Mt. Spokane match as the second official,” he said. “That was an eye-opener for me. I learned a lot from that experience.

“My second varsity match was Rogers-Mead. (Former longtime Mead coach) Cash Stone was there, and so was (fellow coaching legend) Ken Pello.”

Tschirgi makes certain he has a pack of business cards with him at all times – especially if he’s working a match.

“I make sure I tell every senior class I see that they should consider being a referee if they want to continue in the sport,” he said.

Krouse feels the same way.

“I’ve told all of my friends that they should do this – at least give it a try,” he said. “To me, it’s how I can give back to a sport that gave me so much. This is how I’m paying it forward.”

Krouse said he’s not sure how long he wants to remain an official. He’s majoring in education at Eastern and plans a career as a teacher.

“People ask me if I want to keep being a referee or if I want to be a wrestling coach one day,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t really know right now. I just know I want to continue to be involved in this sport.”