You can’t blame local high school football officials for being couch potatoes on Sundays.

That’s because the 21 officials in the Western Colorado Football Officials Association worked three or four games a week, every week, this season.

Officiating varsity, junior varsity and C-team games for a dozen Western Slope schools has the local association stretched thin, but the officials don’t grumble about the workload — just the opposite.

“The guys who are working have not opted out, have not blinked. They’ve been troopers,” said Chuck Nissen, who assigns officials for games in Area 14, which not only includes the four District 51 schools, but stretches from Rangely to Gunnison and Norwood, including Delta and Montrose counties. “They’ve just been working hard for the kids.”

The local association is down a dozen officials from a year ago. Six retired and six more decided not to officiate this season, Nissen said. He registered as a football official for the first time this season so there were enough officials to make it through the season.

The kids are the reason the officials put on the striped shirts nearly every afternoon or evening. Like the teams when the decision was made to allow teams to play in the fall instead of starting in February, officials had about 2½ weeks to prepare. That quick start, plus the uncertainty of the season during a pandemic, led some officials to decide to take the year off, and some potential new officials to wait until 2021 to join the association.

Jason Holsan, who’s been officiating football 22 years, didn’t think twice when word went out that the season was on for the fall.

“I was just excited as heck that we were going to get to play something,” said Holsan, who is an accounting manager for an HVAC and plumbing company by day. “At that point whether it was a full season, I was happy to be able to put on the stripes and get out and do something. My take was, if they’re going to let these high schoolers have a chance of playing, then I’m gonna do my part to help them be able to do that.”

Losing a dozen officials forced Nissen to go to three-man or four-man crews for some sub-varsity games instead of full five-man crews, because some days there are seven sub-varsity games to referee.

Luckily, he can call for reinforcements out of Glenwood Springs, since most of the schools in the Roaring Fork Valley decided to wait until Season C (beginning in February) to play.

“They bail us out every week by either covering an entire game or I borrow a guy to put here or borrow a guy to put there. They’ve bailed us out the entire season,” Nissen said.

They made it through the regular season, and with the Mesa County Health Department not allowing any more games to be played in the county this season because of rising coronavirus cases, Nissen should have enough numbers to work playoff games in outlying communities.

“We’ve made it work,” Nissen said. “Our officials have been troopers, they’ve been awesome and our administrators have been very understanding. The couple games we’ve asked them to move, they totally understand and they’ve made it work for them and their school and their opponent. Everybody’s worked together for the kids.”

Officials wear face coverings on the field, although they aren’t required to have them on at all times as long as they’re socially distanced from players and coaches.

“I do a lot of white-hatting as the referee, so when I back away from the line getting ready for the play, I’ll pull my mask down, watch the play and do what I need and when the play ends I’ll pull my mask up as I’m going back in toward the pile,” Holsan said. “At that point I’ll pull my mask up. If a coach has a question and we go to the sideline, we’ll pull our masks up. It’s just another thing we have to deal with, but it hasn’t been that much of a hindrance.”

Holsan and Nissen are both concerned about having enough officials to call basketball games, if that season is played after the first of the year. With numbers spiking, the state COVID-19 task force and Colorado High School Activities Association have not finalized a plan for Season B, which doesn’t begin until after the first of the year.

Nissen also assigns basketball officials for 14 Western Slope schools, who have boys and girls teams at the varsity and sub-varsity levels, and Holsan has reffed for 25 years.

“It’s going to be a huge issue,” said Nissen, who has between 40-45 basketball officials, but is bracing for as many as a quarter of those to opt out. He’d like to pick up a handful of new basketball officials, saying even two or three more would make a big difference.

“When they came out with Season B and we were all playing 16 games, now it’s down to 13, 14 games, we don’t have enough officials to cover that many games. We’re going to be playing varsity games Monday through Saturday; you just can’t play them all on Friday and Saturday. We’re probably going to be down 20-25% if officials have to wear masks,” Nissen said.

Holsan agreed that some basketball officials will take the year off if they’re required to wear masks as they’re running up and down the court, and it’s going to be hard to have enough officials to go around.

“They’re condensing it into seven weeks and they’re having fewer games, but we’re still talking 13 to 15 games in seven weeks,” Holsan said. “That’s getting busy with C, JV and varsity, boys and girls. It’ll be crazy if we’re able to play it.”

But Holsan plans to be available, just as he was eager to be on the football field, and he’s noticed everyone involved in games is just as excited.

“When we go and have our quick coaches meeting before the game, from every coach we almost always hear, ‘Hell, we’re just happy we’re getting to play,’ ” Holsan said. “That comment is made almost across the board. Once we start playing, I’ve made the comment to other officials, it seems as though we’re not having as many unsportsmanlike issues. I think (the players) realize they’re pretty damn lucky to be playing and maybe unlike other years when it’s just expected they get to play and it’s a given fact. This year wasn’t.

“I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it seems they appreciate being able to be out here more.”

Most officials don’t referee for the money.

“It’s because you love the sport, love being out there with the kids,” Holsan said. “That’s the main drive.”

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