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Rickreall resident Trina Comerford makes a call during a Western Oregon softball game in May. Comerford has worked as a college umpire since 2005. In 2006, she signed her at hen-Pacific-10 Division I contract.
June 19, 2013
RICKREALL -- Umpiring was never a dream of Trina Comerford's.
A softball player nearly all her life, she scoffed when a friend suggested she put on the blue uniform and try the view from behind the plate.
A bad call in her daughter's 10-and-under softball game changed all of that.
"She had this game where she went to tag a girl running from second to third," Comerford recalled of her daughter, Briana Hawes (now Briana Dredin, who went on to become a Perrydale High state champion in the 1,500 meters as a senior).
"The girl ran all the way into the outfield to avoid the tag and it was never OK with me when the umpire went out and told the runner, `You can't do that, but next time do this,' and called her safe.
"I know that we want to give opportunities to everyone and make them feel good about things, but I want things done right, and then let them learn from that.
"I was frustrated that day."
So soon after that, she called that friend -- Benjie Hedgecock, a former college umpire who also ran youth softball tournaments out of Dayton -- and said simply: "Sign me up and get me a rule book."
That was in 2003.
By 2006, Comerford had signed her first NCAA Division I softball umpiring nonconference schedule contract with the then Pacific-10 Conference.
Life on the diamond
Comerford, 42, who grew up as Trina Houskeeper and graduated from North Thurston High in Lacey, Wash., picked up the game early: She played T-ball at age 5, and at 6 played on an 8-and-under softball team.
After a successful prep career, she played a season at the University of Puget Sound (Wash.) before transferring to Ricks College (now Brigham Young University-Idaho), where she settled for intramural softball.
Even after college was over, Comerford wasn't finished.
From 1994 to 2003, she played for a competitive fastpitch travel squad out of Portland called the "Has Beens."
By the time that was over, she didn't think too much about the game anymore, not with a family to raise and a full-time job -- she currently works for Mid-Valley Rehabilitation Services in Dallas.
But once she made the transition to an umpire, Comerford realized it filled a major void.
"I think it fixes a bit of my competitive nature," she said of umpiring. "I like to be really good at things. I'm a low Type A, and when I'm umpiring I'm able to be competitive with myself, game to game, inning to inning, and improve on the things that I do -- being better than I was the call before.
"It gives me the constant ability to fight to be better."
Comerford started with 10-and-under fastpitch softball in the summer of 2003. By the end of the season, she was working 14- and 16-and-under games.
By as early as 2005, she did her first community college games, working Chemeketa contests and tournaments before she moved her way up to the NAIA and NCAA Division II levels.
In the fall of 2006, a fellow umpire convinced her to work Oregon State's fall season. Shortly after, she signed her first Division I contract.
Since then, she's worked the fields at Pac-12, Mountain West, Big West and Western Athletic Conference games.
"That's unheard of," Comerford said of her sharp rise. "It's a lot of pressure. At that level, I'm still one of the least experienced - or the rookie, as they call me. (Other umpires) have 10, 11, 12 years of umpiring before they get to that level.
"I got to that level fast."
Sacrifice and committment
Comerford didn't just get to where she is now because she just happened to be good at umpiring.
She worked at it -- to the tune of nearly 500 games, all over the country, every year from 2005 to 2011.
"She's made herself available to work a lot of games every year," said Matt Jacks, fellow college umpire and current NAIA and NCAA Division III umpire assigner for Oregon.
"We've both worked Mountain West and the WAC and also for the Pac-12, we've gone outside of the area, we've attended camps to help improve our game and it also helped that she played some college ball at UPS."
Comerford said she even worked for free in order to learn the three-umpire system, which college softball utilizes but most high school ball does not.
She also understands that she's had more opportunities to grow and advance in the profession because of her gender.
Trina Comerford has umpired Pac-12, Mountain West, Big West and Western Athletic Conference softball games in her career.
Only about 10 percent of college umpires in the U.S. are female.
"As an assigner, I deal with the national office and they're actively looking for and promoting female umpires because it's a female sport," Jacks said.
"She's done a good job of getting there and staying there."
Comerford said at the beginning it wasn't easy breaking into a male-dominated profession.
Even today, there are only two working female college umpires in Oregon.
"I think the opportunity was available to me because I was a female who was athletic and I knew the rules," Comerford said. "The other side to that was that I had to work really hard.
"... I wasn't very well accepted, I wasn't one of the guys, so it was tough to break in. It's a lot easier now than it was in 2005 and 2006. That's a good sign."
`She makes me a better umpire'
Colleen Neel is a Division II umpire based in Vancouver, Wash., who works primarily Great Northwest Athletic Conference -- Western Oregon's league -- games.
She's worked plenty of contests with Comerford, whom she met at an invitational-only umpiring camp in Georgia in 2006.
"We had a really good camp and then both of our careers took off," Neel, who also works for a construction contracting company, said.
She also described Comerford's umpiring style in one word: "Intense," Neel said with a laugh.
"She's very focused. Working with Trina is kind of like when you have a very intense coach. You have to up your game, or else you're going to have problems.
"There are people that don't always enjoy working with Trina because she works at a level that can sometimes be very unforgiving ... but I like working with her because it always makes me a better umpire, whether I like it or not."
That intense attitude also serves as a motivator when Comerford makes a mistake.
She remembers her biggest error like it was yesterday and it's a memory that continues to push her to become a better umpire, whether it's by always fighting for the best angle, how to best manage games, coaches and players, or simply learning from her mistakes.
"I tanked a call at the University of Oregon when they were playing Boise State," Comerford said of a game in May of 2011. "It was the bottom of the seventh inning and I got the call wrong. I didn't have the right depth or angle and I got the call wrong and I allowed a runner to score who shouldn't have, and Boise State should have won that game.
"... Now, my video of my mess-up is used as a training tool at the Division I level. It sticks with you because you want to get things right."
Referees of any sport tend to get plenty of critiscm from fans, coaches and players.
Comerford said after that call, she received upward of 100 angry emails she calls "hate mail."
That wasn't the only time, either.
"I've been chased to the parking lot before, I've been called bad names before, I've had things thrown at me," Comerford said.
But the mother of nine -- she has five of her own and four stepchildren with husband, Sean Comerford -- said none of that phases her.
"Screaming and critizing, that's not really an issue for me -- I'm used to being challenged. For Pete's sake, I have nine kids," she said. "I just turn that off.
"... That mistake at Oregon, I've looked back at it, I've seen it. I allowed a team to win a game that should not have, and I own it. That's on me. Still, to this day, I have to prove myself."
Finding a balance
Working nearly 500 games a year, on top of a full-time job and raising a family that includes Comerford's 15-year-old parapalegic son, Tyler, evenutally became too much.
So the past couple of years, Comerford was forced to make a compromise.
"I've cut way back," she said while noting this year, where she logged just 127 college games during the 2013 season.
At one time, she was working up to 50 high school games a year, but she's scaled that back, too, working now on "polishing" her Division I and II game.
"I'm tired and I'm trying to find a balance with my family," she said.
That family, however, has thrived despite her absence, which can be nearly every weekend in the spring and summer months.
That's because Comerford -- organized and a stickler for the details -- has instilled her own independence in her kids.
"She's raised us in a way where we can take care of ourselves and there are others we can rely on -- we don't always have to rely on our parents all of the time," said her son, Mick Hawes, who graduated from Perrydale High this month.
"I think I speak for my whole family when I say that even though she's sometimes a little too busy with work and umpiring, none of us would ever trade her for the world because of her hard work and her strong will is such an example. It's helped us all turn into the type of people we need to be in the world."
And while Comerford has scaled back her own umpiring, she's been hot on the recruiting trail -- along with Neel -- to find more female umpires to take the torch when she's forced to hang up her gear.
Leading more women into a male-dominated profession in a female sport is a bigger goal than even perhaps umpiring the sport's top collegiate assignment: the NCAA Divison I Women's College World Series.
"While that's my long-term goal, I'm really just looking at the next inning and the next game and the next call," Comerford, who worked as the umpire crew chief of the GNAC Tournament in Billings, Mont., this past season, said. "It's more of a passionate goal for me to be a strong female umpire and bring others along and get them in the field.
"If I can successfully recruit 30 to 50 female umpires, I think that's a much bigger success for me than making it to the College World Series."
INTERESTED IN BECOMING A SOFTBALL UMPIRE?
*Trina Comerford is always on the lookout for new softball umpires, especially females, to train and bring into the profession. If you think you might be interested in starting out at the youth/recreational or high school levels, you can contact her at 503-910-5048.