It was a mid-June evening in Happy Valley when four local umpires stepped out of the tunnel at Nittany Lion Softball Park to officiate their first career PIAA Championship game.
"Don't trip, don't trip," said Greg Spiker, who called balls and strikes behind home plate for the AAA final, "that's what was going through my mind."
His older brother by just 16 months, Kevin Spiker was on his way to third base.
The Bedford County umpiring crew of (from left) Greg Spiker, Kevin Spiker, Mike Whitcomb and Al Godissart worked the PIAA?Class AAA softball title game.
"It was a dream come true," Kevin said, "especially to experience this with my brother. He got me into umpiring and I just love it."
Mike Whitcomb took his place at second base as Al Godissart, the senior member of the crew and Chapter Rules Interpreter headed for first.
"It was like going to the World Series," said Godissart. "I think we all had butterflies when we came out of the tunnel, and looking up and seeing Beaver Stadium, it was pretty incrediblejust awesome."
Just as a PIAA championship is the goal for the state's best high school softball teams, officiating the finals is a fitting reward for the four-man crews chosen to umpire each of the four classes.
Their chapter generally shares playoff duties with other District 5 umpires from Somerset, but this year the stars aligned for the four Bedford County friends to officiate a championship game together. When the emails arrived in their in-boxes, they could hardly believe their eyes.
"It was my goal for the last 10 years," Godissart said. "I had to re-read the email a couple of times to make sure it was for me."
The four men share more than 37 years of officiating experience, and they received favorable evaluations during district and state playoff games in recent years. So out of the more than 400 chapters of officials in Pennsylvania, the local crew earned one of the four coveted officiating assignments during PIAA championship weekend.
They soaked in every aspect of the experience, from the perfectly-manicured Beard Field, with what Kevin Spiker described as the "cleanest dirt I've ever seen" to the stands brimming with more than 2,000 fans. The umpires diligently worked the 5-0 Valley View win over Fort LeBoeuf with no controversy.
Kevin Spiker said, "There was one close call early-on, a bang-bang play at third, but most of the plays were pretty routine."
They've reviewed the game DVD to evaluate their performance.
"I wanted to make sure we got them 100 percent right," Godissart said. "I slowed them down just to make sure, and we nailed them all."
One month after the PIAA championships, the four umpires could have been relaxing and enjoying the offseason. Instead, they were climbing back into their uniforms, giving their time and talent to a summer youth softball tournament, encouraging young athletes and hoping to recruit a new generation of officials. But these dedicated umps may be a dying breed.
Recognizing that young people are discouraged by the idea of being hassled by fans, the umpires say high school sports in general offer an arena of respect.
"The PIAA views he game as an extension of the classroom," Godissart said, "so I consider myself a teacher walking onto the field to teach the rules of softball - these are teaching moments for players and coaches."
The officials are anxious to mentor new umpires, and at the same time are always looking to better themselves, studying the rules throughout the year and continuing their education at annual seminars.
"We don't do it for the money, but for the love of the game," Whitcomb said. "I've played softball and coached, so I understand both sides of most situations and we just try to do the best we can to get it right."
And it's that kind of passion, skill and experience that made these four friends qualified for Pennsylvania softball's highest umpiring honor.
The Bedford County crew knows the chance to officiate a coveted PIAA final is rare, and the opportunity to work the game together could be a once-in-lifetime experience.
"I'd go to war with these guys," Greg Spiker said, "and this is as high as you can go officiating in Pennsylvania. It was really special."
"I thought it was great," said Whitcomb, "I hope we get the opportunity to do it again sometime."
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.