The shortage of football officials in Northeast Missouri and West-Central Illinois has reached a critical stage.
Officials at Highland High School announced Wednesday the home game against Clark County scheduled for Friday, Aug. 24 has been moved to Saturday, Aug. 25. Later that same day, officials at Mark Twain High School had to make the same decision, moving the Aug. 24 home game against Louisiana to Aug. 25.
Now North Shelby is moving its Sept. 7 game against Norborne/Hardin-Central to the next afternoon.
The reason: None of the schools could find an offiicating crew to work on Friday night.
And it's going to get worse.
"There's going to be others," said Bill Treaster, who assigns officials from the Mark Twain Association for 10 schools in Northeast Missouri. "I still have five open Friday games to fill. That's why we're pushing to go to Saturday. The St. Louis and Columbia areas are going that way too. The few crews we do have could be working three games in a weekend -- Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Saturday night.
"It's not ideal, but that's Plan B for now."
Fred Steinway, who assigns officials for nine schools in West-Central Illinois, says he's in the same predicament.
"I don't have a crew at West Hancock for Week 1 (against River Valley)," he said. "I've already suggested they move it to Saturday. I don't have a crew for Week 3 or Week 7 in Pleasant Hill, and I don't have a crew Week 7 at Mendon or West Hancock.
"I've gone as far as to build a crew out of guys who aren't on a Friday night crew. I just put them together, and I've done that twice. It's bad all over."
Ben Buening, the athletic director at Highland, says he's still looking for a crew for another home game in October. He has reached out to all four corners of the state.
"All the assigners are in the same boat," Buening said. "It's progressively gotten worse. I've had to hire crews out of Farmington, four hours away, to have officials for a game. This year, it has progressed that there aren't enough officials in the state.
"It's a serious problem. It's not just with football. At the fall (Missouri State High School Activities Association) meeting, they were talking about them across the board in every sport."
Jason Church is in his 15th year as the athletic director at Clark County, and the relationships he's developed with officials around the area enables him to do his own scheduling.
"I've taken care of next year already," he said. "I have a couple of crews who are accustomed to coming to Kahoka."
That doesn't mean he has avoided all problems.
"With reschedules and rainouts, we had a couple of baseball games last year that we couldn't make up because we couldn't find umpires," Church said.
No one can seem to put their finger on the reason for the shortage.
"I went to Peoria to the (Illinois High School Association) officials conference, and Sam (Knox, an assistant executive director) was saying it's so hard to keep the guys from the first year to the fifth year," Steinway said. "They say the first five years are the hardest. You might get them registered, but it's hard to keep them registered.
"Sometimes the skin isn't thick enough. I think the biggest issue is the coaches and parents and fans yelling at the guys."
Buening says he's noticed a push to get teenagers started in officiating, but that doesn't help him now.
"If you're 18 or 19 years old, how would you like to be in the middle of a Palmyra-Monroe City game?" he said. "You're going to get screamed at and say, ‘It wasn't worth the money to go do this.'"
Treaster says finding three basketball officials or two baseball umpires is easier than finding a five-man football crew.
"You have five individuals working five different jobs," he said. "And if you're not working a game, you have to be training or watching videos -- and we're stuck in a nine-week window. It's a seasonal job.
"I'd love to throw more money at (the officials), but the schools and booster clubs don't have it."
Officials typically receive between $70 and $90 for a varsity football game, but Buening agrees that paying them more isn't likely to solve the officiating shortage.
"We have to treat them the best we can," he said. "Having food for them after a game or a candy bar at halftime, those small things go a long way. Nobody gets into this to make a million dollars, but they do want to be treated with respect and hospitality. Fans need to respect that it's not an easy job, and sometimes they need to shut their mouths. The refs are doing this for the same reasons that the coaches are -- the kids.
"If we don't have officials, we don't have games."