EAST PEORIA — Guys like Dylan Poulsen and Ryan Russell are part of the solution to the Illinois High School Association's baseball umpire shortage.
Older umpires are retiring in droves. New blood is needed.
Poulsen is 17 and a senior at Limestone in Bartonville. Russell is 18, a recent Metamora grad and a freshman at Illinois State University. Each is a patched IHSA baseball umpire who also has worked baseball games at other levels. Each worked at Peoria-area varsity baseball games this past spring.
The teen umpires wanted to get better at their craft, so they attended a free clinic for IHSA umpires last month at Illinois Central College organized by sports officials assignor Don King and NCAA and minor league baseball umpire Zo Evans and put on by the Central Illinois Umpires Association.
"Am I a better umpire after doing the clinic? Yes, 100%," said Poulsen, who also is an IHSA football and basketball official and hopes someday to be a Major League Baseball umpire.
"I can't say enough good things about the clinic," Russell said.
"I learned so many ways that I can improve as an umpire. My mechanics behind the plate are better now. I can see the ball better. And I learned at the clinic how important it is to communicate with the other umpires who are working the game."
Half of the dozen umpires who participated in the clinic are just getting started in their umpiring careers. The other half are veteran umps. The umpires had an instructional session, then worked at an ICC baseball team scrimmage with clinicians King, Evans, Pete McGinnes and Dave Owen providing real-time critiques — all in the name of producing more and better umpires.
McGinnes pulled an umpire aside after the umpire worked an inning behind the plate, and had him change his stance with the ICC catcher crouched in front of him.
The change was for safety reasons.
"You're leaving your side open when you stand this way," McGinnes said to the umpire. "There's no protection there."
Veteran ICC baseball coach Brett Kelley was happy to have all the umpires there.
"There's a nice crowd here. They must be here to see you guys," Kelley said to King and a group of umpires who were listening to King's comments during the game.
King said he was thrilled with the results of the clinic, which was scheduled, he said, to not only provide needed training but also as a recruiting tool. Umpires learned about the clinic through email and word-of-mouth.
"The guys came to the clinic to improve. They listened and they learned. And it was fun," King said.
Proper mechanics and better signals were two points of emphasis at the clinic.
"We all can improve our signals," King said. "We need to emulate the umpires we see on TV."
Having strong, consistent signals means "you're engaged and enjoying your job," King said. "If you haven't been doing that during the entire game, when you have a borderline call, both sides are going to think you missed the call no matter what you say to them. Both coaches will be irritated."
Poulsen and Russell each said a major reason why they're enjoying IHSA umpiring is the support and mentoring they have received from more experienced umpires.
"They're good people and good guys," Poulsen said. "They answer all my questions."
"Every umpire I have worked with has been very welcoming," Russell said.
More new IHSA baseball umpires would be a welcome sight.
Baseball umpires are part of an overall decline in the number of licensed IHSA officials over the past 10 years — from about 13,700 to about 9,500, a 30.6% reduction — because of retirements, time restrictions, and, in some cases, unruly fans.
Poulsen and Russell each made a pitch for IHSA umpiring to others their age.
"It wouldn't hurt to give it a try," Poulsen said. "It's good money for a side gig and gets you involved in sports if you like sports or play sports."
"You can make your own hours and if you've played sports, the adrenaline rush is still there when you're umpiring," Russell said.
Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.
This article originally appeared on Journal Star: IHSA umpire shortage: Teenagers listen and learn at free Peoria clinic