Since he was in second grade, Luke Bowers has felt at home playing a significant role on a basketball court.
Bowers, a sophomore at Turkeyfoot Valley Area High School, can also be considered a groundbreaking in the annals of PIAA contributions to the game.
Just don’t expect to see him sporting the Rams’ navy blue and gold while on the floor, Bowers’ uniform situation is a little more black and white.
Bowers, who turned 16 earlier this month, recently became the PIAA’s first junior basketball official thanks to an initiative by the organization to recruit and enroll junior officials across a wide range of sports.
Pat Gebhart, assistant executive director of the PIAA, said 125 students across the commonwealth signed up for the program with 31 of them fully registered and able to officiate junior-high contests in Pennsylvania.
“Where it can grow is only limited by the number of people who are interested in it and the schools that want to contract with those people to officiate,” Gebhart said.
When the program became official, Bowers was more than ready to answer the call.
“In the middle of summer (2022), I heard some rumblings about the junior officials program,” Bowers said. “The school contacted me and said it heard about it and gave me some information because it knew I might be interested. We ended up talking to some other officials in Somerset County and they give us more of what’s going on and about the process.
“As soon as I found this, I got in touch with the PIAA. Immediately I was at the front of the process.
“I was with every step of the way in the early stages to express my voice and my passion for sports officers and create the next opportunity.”
Bowers’ path took him to an officiating clinic at Chestnut Ridge High School, where he tested for his certification, even though the junior officiating program wasn’t fully enacted, meaning Bowers and other prospective junior officials were in a holding pattern.
“The opinions were really mixed as to whether the program would be passed for the winter sports or if it would be more towards the spring,” Bowers recalled. “Really, we didn’t know. For about a month or so, in late October, it was just a waiting game. We didn’t know what was going to happen with the program.
Bowers then got a call from (PIAA officials’ corresponding secretary) Kim Hill with the news that the program was, at that time, likely on its way to passing.
“I was really ecstatic,” Bowers said.
After his first scheduled game was postponed due to inclement weather, Bowers worked his first junior high game this past December alongside longtime basketball official Craig Knupp, who serves as Bowers’ mentor.
“I was able to officiate my first game (in Somerset) with Craig, it just happened to work out that way,” Bowers said. “It was just a really overwhelming experience for me on the personal side. To go out there and be with my mentor, Craig, who was a great contact and guidance and all the experience that he brings to the number of years that he’s been Was involved as an official and as a teacher.
“I was able to do the first game, I was able to have a lot of family and friends in attendance. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments. You think of all the people who made it possible. My mother (Christy Bowers) was a huge help in the process. She was my main person from the beginning and my biggest supporter.”
Gebhart notes that mentors are a critical and necessary part of the fledgling program.
“The mentorship program is critical to that,” he said. “Each of the junior officials must be assigned a competent mentor, who will take a vested interest in the success of the junior official they are providing guidance to.
“That’s probably the most important part of this is having a mentor who wants to be a mentor and is willing to dedicate additional time from their busy schedule to the junior official.”
While he’s only working PIAA junior high games this season, Bowers’ connection with officiating dates back to an event near his home in Confluence.
“I did the Turkeyfoot Valley alumni basketball game,” Bowers recalled. “It was quite an experience for me to go out and do it on my own. I actually started doing that and it became a tradition for me as I got older. As a result, I started doing some elementary basketball league games in Turkeyfoot (Tol). That was super-big for me. I’ve had a lot of experience with these games for a number of years.”
Bowers got his start in sports by playing basketball and baseball, but always had his eye on staying involved in any capacity.
“I quickly realized that sports was going to be a passion for me, but at the same time, I was able to see the other side of it,” Bowers said. “I realized that if you look at the odds, I thought to myself, ‘Maybe it’s not really practical if I can do it at a professional level, playing, but what are some other options I can look at?’ I’m always interested in working behind the scenes and I’m a guy who likes to learn the rules. I’m just really starting to connect with it.”
Bowers finds another connection thanks to his plunge into officiating, which also includes PIAA certification in baseball and volleyball.
“The umpiring and basketball refereeing communities are really special,” he said.
“The bond we share and the passion we have for sports is truly something unique. To be able to continue to make those connections in many different sports with officiating has been something I really cherish.
He also found a new joy in tending to the equipment needs of NAHL teams visiting the Johnstown Tomahawks at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial.
“We started going to games about five years ago,” Bowers said. “I really just fell in love with the game. Another sport that I just love to be around. Over the years, in Johnstown, we’ve been able to make connections on the hockey side to players and coaches, not only from Johnstown, but Also the visiting teams.
Bowers’ path to working behind the scenes in the NAHL began when he reached New Jersey Titans coach Craig Doremus on Twitter, who invited Bowers and his younger brother, Lee, to see the activities for the club during their next visit. It also introduced Bowers to the tasks involved in equipment management.
“I think that was the first time we were able to see that behind-the-scenes look at hockey,” Bowers recalled. “Immediately, this was another love of mine that I quickly connected with and fell in love with.”
Since jumping into service with the Titans when they are in Johnstown, the Bowers tandem has also helped the Maine Nordiques, Northeast Generals, Danbury Jr. Hat Tricks and Maryland Black Bears when they visit 1 Summit Arena, along with taking on assistant equipment jobs. managers during the NAHL’s top prospects event in Cranberry Township this past February.
While working with the visiting teams, Bowers noted that hospitality is a strong point of the Tomahawks staff when help is needed or if questions arise.
Bowers also made his way through learning the ropes of sports broadcasting, meeting Waynesburg University professor Lanny Frattere, who called Pittsburgh Pirates games on television and radio broadcasts from 1976 to 2008 and also picking the brain of Joe Block, one of the Pirates. ‘ current play-by-play broadcasters.
Those connections led to Bowers taking the headset on streaming broadcasts for Turkeyfoot Valley Athletics and the eventual creation of his own YouTube channel.
After high school, Bowers plans to attend Waynesburg to major in broadcasting and also pursue a job as a professional baseball umpire.
Sean Curtis is a reporter for the Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5085. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnCurtis430.