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MSHSL issues penalties, continues to investigate after ineligible football referees were used last season

Procedures within the Tri-States Football Association will change next fall after it was discovered at least two unregistered officials worked for the group last year.

Procedures within the Tri-States Football Association will change next fall after it was discovered at least two unregistered officials worked for the group last year.

In November, the Minnesota State High School League removed one of the association's crews from a state semifinal football game at the Metrodome as punishment for the offense and is considering further penalties as part of an ongoing investigation.

"We'll try and correct it and make sure it doesn't happen again," said association secretary Pat Milinovich, who assigns officials to games throughout the region.

The MSHSL requires officials to attend a rules interpretation meeting, pass a test and pay a $37 yearly fee to be registered in Minnesota.

MSHSL associate director Kevin Merkle confirmed at least two officials weren't registered, but still is investigating whether there were more.

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"In some situations it could be as simple as they didn't take a test, attend a meeting or pay a fee -- or all three -- or it could be a situation where the association knowingly assigned people that weren't registered," Merkle said.

Milinovich said he asks all officials before the season whether they are registered, and was surprised to find out after the season some weren't. He said the association, which handles games in Minnesota from Sandstone to Grand Marais, as well as in northern Wisconsin, will make sure from now on to only use officials listed as registered on the MSHSL Web site.

"Obviously, now if we ask somebody if they are registered, we can't take them at their word anymore," said Milinovich, a game official for35 years who has been in charge of assigning Tri-States referees for more than 15 years. "Regardless of what anybody says, if you're not on the list, you're not going to work the games."

Bill Elliott was the crew chief on the unit that was pulled off the state tournament game. Those five officials were registered. However, at least one fill-in official used on Elliott's crew during the regular season was not and therefore his regular crew was penalized.

"It's a tough process to get your crew to the Metrodome. So for us to get a semifinal game, we were really excited," Elliott said.

Elliott maintains the problem stems from a lack of officials in the Tri-States. Milinovich estimates the association has suffered a net loss of about 15 members in the past five years, leaving approximately 45 in the organization. If that attrition continues, it's possible some teams will be faced with playing Thursday or Saturday games.

"Our association did not have enough registered officials to cover all the games," Elliott said.

To combat the paucity, some crews worked doubleheaders on Fridays, other games were called by four officials -- the minimum allowed by the state -- and, in some cases, former officials -- at least one of whom was not registered but worked on Elliott's crew -- came out of retirement to help call games.

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Elliott, a game official for nearly 20 years and a crew chief for nearly 10, said the association erred when it relied on officials whose eligibility was in question, instead of using four-man crews. Elliott, who is suspended until further notice, said he understands the importance of registering due to liability issues and apologized for the mistake.

"[As crew chief] I shouldn't have allowed this to happen and [should have] looked into it better," he said. "The key issue is whether our association's top priority was to cover the game, and it should have been to follow the State High School League rules.

"Our association has a lot to do to straighten this out."

Jason Lagergren of Duluth admitted he was one of the unregistered officials, but claims his case was simply a paperwork mistake.

"I don't remember what it was that I didn't do," said Lagergren, a official with approximately seven years' experience in the Tri-States. "I thought I sent in the paperwork with the check, but apparently I didn't."

Lagergren received a letter from the MSHSL in October asking him to write back with an explanation. He replied, saying that he made an inadvertent mistake and hasn't heard back from the league since.

"It wasn't brought to my attention until the end of the [regular] season," he said.

Tri-States board member Duane Koslakiewicz deferred comment until after the investigation is completed.

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Merkle said the main form of discipline is suspension, though that hasn't been determined in this instance. Whatever punishment is applied, Merkle said he hopes it will deter any future problems.

"They shouldn't be out there taking games if they are not registered," he said.

RICK WEEGMAN can be reached at (218) 723-5302, (800) 456-8181 or at rweegman@ duluthnews.com

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