On a recent Sunday, elementary schoolers were stumbling over each other on the lacrosse fields, fighting for the small rubbery balls under the watchful eye of referees — most of whom are just a decade older than the players.

With players this age, the lacrosse ball is on the ground for a lot of the game. One girl scored, prompting cheers from the couple dozen parents on the sidelines and a blow of the whistle from 18-year-old Sophie Cho. She fished the ball out of the goal and set up the face-off, whistling again to unleash the goggle-wearing, stick-toting hordes.

“This is, like, the last hurrah,” she said of the Massachusetts Youth Lacrosse Jamboree in Devens. Cho’s mom was the one who suggested she pick up reffing a couple years ago.

“I started off as a lifeguard, and I really just like directing people,” Cho laughed.

She’s part of a cohort that’s increasingly taking charge on the field. Just as youth sports are growing increasingly competitive — with more leagues recruiting more players and cramming in even more games — many longtime referees are hanging up their stripes. It’s a supply-and-demand problem the officials’ associations are desperate to plug, and they’ve found an eager group in high schoolers.

Some older officials acknowledge it’s far from an ideal option given the logistical hurdles of relying on a teenage workforce. The experience can also be stressful for the young refs dealing with unruly parents and coaches. And yet, the teens say they love the gig.

“It’s good money for each of the games, and it’s super easy and fun to, like, teach the little girls,” said 18-year-old Abby Cooney, who called fouls alongside Cho on that recent Sunday.

Filling the field

Baby boomers filled the ranks of youth sports referees for years — and often still do. But many have stepped away as they’ve aged.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 50,000 interscholastic sports officials nationwide hung up their whistles around 2020. For the first time this year, those national numbers are back to pre-pandemic levels.

A 2023 survey from the National Association of Sports Officials suggests minors are still a tiny fraction of officials. But here in Massachusetts, associations say the number has been growing as they adopted more aggressive recruitment strategies and made training more accessible.

“When I first started coaching, there were no kids, there were no juniors — it was just adults,” said Michael Alexanian, who officiates and assigns referees to games through the Eastern Massachusetts Woman’s Lacrosse Umpiring Association. “With the explosion of the sport, you just need more people working the games.”

“It’s good money for each of the games, and it’s super easy and fun to, like, teach the little girls.”
Abby Cooney, junior official in girls’ lacrosse

Comprehensive statewide data on how many refs are teenagers is hard to pin down, since the officials’ associations are fragmented across age groups and regions.

Melissa Levine, who trains the junior officials in girls’ lacrosse, said she worked with more than 100 this spring. On the boys’ side, more than 200 minors officiated this year, according to Rick Catalano, a director with the associate officials program for the Eastern Massachusetts Lacrosse Officials Association.

And in boys’ ice hockey last season, more than 500 teens became officials, accounting for over a third of the refs who officiate at the youngest levels.

Giving back to a sport they love

Players who sign up to be refs are enthusiastic about the sport — like high school junior Lauren McMahon, who’s been refereeing for three years.

“I thought it was cool that people that have been playing lacrosse for so long can give back to it, in a way,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve just gotten more comfortable — obviously, I’ve been playing the game for three more years, as well.”

Building confidence is one of many virtues officials see in bringing in teenage refs. Since most of them play the sport themselves, the refs already know the rules of the game. And they serve as role models for the younger players, too.

“For us, we actually want to use them because we want these younger players to say, ‘Oh, that’s who I want to be,’” Alexanian said.

In girls’ sports, especially, the new recruits give the players an older female player to look up to since men still dominate the officials’ ranks. In softball, Grace Williams first umpired when she was in high school. Now, in her 30s, she’s running a junior olympic officials training program on the South Shore.

“There hasn’t been one game at the college level that somebody hasn’t said, ‘Nice to have a female umpire,’” Williams said. “Even though it’s a female sport, we still have very few — in comparison — females out there officiating.”

She says while older umpires are predominantly men, her new young cohort, mostly recruited from local players, is about 80% girls.

Several young girls are on a big golf cart with crowds roaming in the background.
A young girls’ lacrosse team is driven between fields at the tournament.
Hannah Reale GBH News

Dealing with unruly parents

While officials don’t want to ignore a potential pool of recruits, some hesitate to put teenagers in the game.

Parents and coaches regularly yell at refs, officials say, regardless of their age. For the teens, that can be especially difficult to handle — so much so that some leave the field or ice crying after tough games. A handful of them never return to ref again.

In hockey, especially, officials have been raising the alarm about bad behavior from the stands for years.

Eugene Binda, who has his own referee training business, Referees Crease, said he has been spit on and one person even put out their cigar on him. And he’s heard about violent acts against youth refs, too.

“We had a kid last summer, at a rink on the South Shore, where the parent waited for him to come out and all but tried to run him over in the parking lot,” he said. “And I’m not making that up — we had to file police reports.”

The rowdy conduct means some officials more reluctant to recruit teens. Mark Rulli, the lead trainer for baseball’s South Shore Umpires Association, said he’s spent the last few years casting a wide net to make up for the shortfall, trying everywhere from the parents in the Little League stands to senior centers. In his area, it’s worked — without pulling in too many teenagers.

“They’re gonna run into a parent that maybe had a bad day at work,” Rulli said. “With baseball, you’re inside a fence, you’re kind of caged up in there. So it could be a tough situation for a child.”

The challenges of relying on teens

Also: they’re teenagers. That comes with issues, logistical and otherwise.

There are unique scheduling challenges, because unlike their older pools of recruits, the teen officials have their own games to go to.

“We thought we were going to have a really good crop of kids coming in — only to find out these kids were playing the same tournaments we’re trying to get them officiating,” Binda said about last season’s recruits.

And Levine says that, in girls’ lacrosse, they might start with a large crew but it dwindles over the course of the season.

“A lot of times they’re not super reliable because they’re high school kids,” said Levine, who trains the new recruits. “And by the end of May, they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be tied down on a Sunday.’”

She now expects more turnover every year, as kids leave their afterschool job behind — or they go off to college, like Cho and Cooney will in the fall.

A teenager in referee stripes motions with her hands at a group of young girls
Sophie Cho officiates at a Massachusetts Youth Lacrosse game.
Hannah Reale GBH News

There are some teens sticking around. Andrew DeGirolamo, a 15-year-old boys’ lacrosse ref who’s been officiating for three years, said there haven’t been a lot of “crazy coaches” this year.

“I just really like lacrosse,” he said.

And the players they’re calling fouls on could be next in line. Alison Hanchett, one of the parents cheering on the sidelines, says one of her daughters would be happy in the black-and-white stripes.

“I could totally see my oldest wanting to be a referee one day. Like, having the whistle,” Hanchett told GBH News. “Just like being in control and being the leader.”