Students fill sports officiating gap through school program

by Dan Holland

Since Nordonia High School started a sports officiating program in the 2022-23 school year, there has been an increase in enrollment numbers and offerings in the program, according to NHS Physical Education Chairperson Amie Cormell.

“Now, in our second year, we’ve gone from three to 16 students, and we’re hoping that it continues to grow,” said Cormell. “Last year, we did baseball and softball in the first quarter and basketball in the second quarter, and the students were certified in those sports.”

The program was basketball-only this year, Cormell continued, “just to make sure we got our numbers up, because that’s the most popular sport.” Next year, plans are to hire an additional P.E. teacher and expand instruction in four sports per semester, of which the students can pick two.

The officiating program sprung out of the district’s decision years back to waive physical education requirements for students who participate in sports, band or cheerleading. The program is offered in conjunction with the Ohio High School Athletic Association and a company called RefReps and replaces the state’s required two semesters of P.E.

Nordonia High School Athletic Director Rob Eckenrode brought the idea to Cormell a few years ago, and she subsequently shadowed a similar program at Jackson High School.

“[Eckenrode] told me about the online referee program and pursuing students to offer the program in high schools,” said Cormell. “I then reached out to RefReps, who provide the online classroom training.”

Ohio recently became the first state to recognize an OHSAA-issued sports officiating license as counting toward high school graduation requirements in the health career field, according to a Nov. 15 OHSAA press release. The OHSAA also expanded its “Respect the Game” policies for the 2023-24 high school winter sports season. The program began in 2004.

“The officiating shortage has been building for the last 10 years in Ohio and across the country, and the pandemic certainly sped that up,” said Tim Stried, director of media relations for OHSAA. “Today’s high school student-athletes have an opportunity to be the group that replenishes the ranks and ensures that interscholastic sports don’t miss a beat.”

“The number one reason that officials get out of the profession is because of bad fan behavior,” Stried continued. “The OHSAA re-launched the Respect the Game program in the fall to help fight poor sportsmanship from the stands. We have seen good results so far and keep reminding people that if we don’t have officials, we don’t have a game.”

Cormell said part of the instruction is helping students recognize that “there will be fans, coaches and players that will question them.”

“So, we teach them how to handle conflict resolution, which is a life skill. Learning how to handle those situations is important, along with encouraging the sportsmanship of the athletes,” she said.

“The high school and middle school have done a good job of trying to get the message out prior to the games. They read a message to the crowd, and anyone who’s in the crowd is told the dos and don’ts of being at an event,” said Nordonia Youth Basketball Director John Puscian.

Puscian, along with Suburban League trainer and assigner Keith Walker, have assisted Cormell in providing hands-on training in the officiating program. Cormell and Puscian schedule students who have attained their official’s license and can referee weekend youth basketball games.

So far this school year, 12 Nordonia students have earned their certification as Class 3 OHSAA officials, which allows them to officiate OHSAA basketball games for grades 7 through 9.

2023 Nordonia graduate Vinnie Milianta was the first student to receive certification through the officiating program. He now referees intramural and club sports games at The University of Southern Florida.

“Everything I learned there is spot-on for what applies down here, maybe minus some minor rule changes depending on the league you end up officiating,” he said. “But everything translates, especially with having the rules and going through and studying and knowing all the rules. It’s a great resource.”

Nordonia freshman Savion Phillips received his OHSAA certification this school year and is currently officiating middle school basketball games. He plans to officiate high school games.

“Taking the basketball officiating course was fun,” said Phillips. “Being able to learn more about the sport, and already playing basketball myself, made it pretty easy to learn some new things and comprehend what was going on.” 

Cormell, a former University of Akron basketball player, who also coached the Nordonia girls’ varsity basketball team from 2003-2009, said the program provides students a community connection and affords her an opportunity to give back.

“You have students from the high school now out in the community refereeing youth games,” said Cormell. “It’s a K-12 connection within our district, where we have high school kids refereeing games for their younger peers. Then, those younger kids may decide that they want to be referees in high school.”

“This is my way of giving back, by training these kids in how to officiate and getting them out there so they can earn some money,” she added. “It’s been very rewarding.” ∞

The first officiating class from the 2022-2023 school year included (l-r) Elle Ferrara, Vinnie Milianta and Michael Gruber.
Photo courtesy of Amie Cormell.

On our cover (main / photo): Students, teachers and coaches are involved in the refereeing program including (l-r) student Ricardo Ruffin, student Joey Sklarek, Nordonia High School P.E. Chairperson Amie Cormell, Nordonia Youth Basketball Director John Puscian, student C.J. Hohne and student Savion Phillips, the first Ohio High School Athletic Association certified ref who will be reffing middle school games this season. Photo courtesy of Amie Cormell.