A condensed version of this story appeared in the Pacific Northwest edition of the April issue of US Lacrosse Magazine. Don't get the print edition? Become a US Lacrosse member today and help support the positive development of the sport.

Like many lacrosse areas around the country, Washington State is dealing with an officials shortage. One of the ways they’re addressing the shortage may pay dividends for years.

Erik Smith, an executive board member and the assigner for the Washington Lacrosse Officials Association (WALOA), helped launch the Mentor Bench Official (MBO) program in 2015. The program combines elements that longtime US Lacrosse volunteer Don Stoppenbach brought from Georgia and Smith’s own experiences with Lead Petty Officers from his time in the U.S. Navy.

The MBO is a “veteran” high school student, usually a junior or senior with previous officiating experience who oversees the two newer officials on the game. Generally, they’re on the sidelines near the team benches, but they can step in when needed. After the game they write up an evaluation of the two officials to share with their assigner.

“They have the authority to make all the calls,” Smith said. “They stay primarily in the penalty area and they have access to all the written evaluations from the week before to see what they should be looking for. If someone is struggling, they can shadow them on the field.”

The program helps improve the officiating for that actual game, helps improve developing officials and can also help identify which officials are ready for bigger roles, or may not be suited for the job.

“It’s been a great program not just to make better officials, but to make better lacrosse,” said Ian O’Hearn, a longtime coach and vice president of the Greater Eastside Lacrosse League, the first youth league to institute the program in Washington.

Smith has been in love with the results, and he’s not alone.

“You take a kid who’s already in the top 10 to 15 percent of your officials, pull them aside and let them know they’ve earned this additional responsibility, then wow, they get really good,” Smith said. “We went from having coach ejections on a fairly regular basis, maybe one to two in a weekend, to zero.”

“The coaches have seen how much better the reffing is at a game when there’s an MBO there,” O’Hearn said. “The difference between just two kids thrown out there versus having an MBO is night and day.

“So much of the aggressive stuff, all it takes is a little communication. A little bit helps to diffuse the situation. Getting an answer, even if I don’t agree with the decision, is something MBO’s are able to do.”

Jeff Bambrick is the MBO manager for South Sound Lacrosse, a youth league that is entering its third year of using the program. He hopes to be able to go from having about 10 percent of the games covered by an MBO to 30 percent.

“In my eyes, it’s player safety,” Bambrick said. “You’ve got an experienced ref keeping an eye on the game, making sure the calls are correct and keeping the coaches in line. It’s huge for me.”

South Sound only has eight MBO’s at this point as Bambrick wants to ensure he has the right people in the program, and there is obviously a cost factor involved in adding a third official.

“I’m going to get the kids that I’m super confident in so that people can see the advantage of the program,” Bambrick said. “I look for kids that have the eye of the tiger. They have a big presence and a big voice and are able to talk to adults. These kids have so much responsibility and they can deal with coaches. These are the ones you know are going to do well in life.”

Garrett Strand is one of those types of kids. He started playing the sport in elementary school and began officiating in ninth grade. The MBO program made the new role easier.

“As a new official, you’re grateful to have someone who knows what they’re doing,” Strand said. “It gives you confidence.”

Strand excelled to the point that by his sophomore year of high school, he was serving as an MBO. He now officiates high school lacrosse in the state. He said it took him about 10-15 games to initially get comfortable on the field, but didn’t find much difficulty in essentially becoming a boss to his peers as an MBO.

“It was pretty weird, but I knew a bunch of the kids that were reffing,” Strand said. “I knew what they were thinking. It makes it easier to transition.”

Now that he’s stopped playing while going to college, he’s found officiating as a way to keep him connected to the sport.

“I love lacrosse,” Strand said. “It’s good money, but it’s fun to get out and I have good relationships with most of the teams around here. You build a lot of good relationships.”

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