Jamestown-based officials making the game better in North Dakota

Feb. 16—JAMESTOWN — When Trev Zerr agreed to officiate his first amateur basketball game, he probably didn't think he'd still be doing it 30 years later.

"When I was in high school I got approached by a couple of older guys who were playing amateur basketball, asking if I would be willing to help out and then my dad coached baseball so I was helping out with that, so that's kind of how I got into it," Zerr said.

Once he graduated college in 1996, Zerr made the commitment to ref on a more regular basis. He officiates basketball, baseball and fastpitch softball.

"I enjoy it," Zerr said. "90% of the time, I enjoy being out there. I enjoy the comradery of the guys I am out there with — the kids — 99.9% of them are awesome out on the court so they make it a fun adventure every night."

Zerr is one of 15 officials belonging to the Jamestown Officials Association.

"We're pretty fortunate," said Brent Thielges, another local official. "We still have a decent amount of experienced officials who have been doing it for a long time. We will probably run into some situations where these experienced individuals are going to start hanging it up but we have a group that is very good at not only getting younger people involved but also mentoring them and getting them the experience that they need to be successful later on."

Thielges officiates but he is also the assigner for the Jamestown Officials Association. Thielges took over the assigning role from Mark Ukestad in 2022.

"With assigning, really it starts with having a working relationship with the athletic directors in the area," Thielges said. "They are the ones that will send dates of games for their upcoming season and then it's up to me to decide if we can provide enough officials for that date.

"You have to take into consideration what you can cover with the guys that you have," he said. "Not all days work for people. Typically the most games I will take is three per night. We'll do our best to have three officials on the floor for every game. We haven't had any issues with that for a while."

On any given night, Thielges, Zerr and Ukestad are typically responsible for officiating what prep games they can usually within 100 miles of Jamestown.

"It's a process," Ukestad said. "You might have the night off and then one guy goes down — you might not have the night off anymore. We do everything possible to get the games in. If you didn't have officials, games would be recess."

When there is a shortage of available officials, members of the Jamestown Officials Association often work with officials out of the Flood Lake organization — by Kulm — and the Valley City association.

"We do a very good job of working together if we need help filling in in certain areas or certain dates," Thielges said. "I am in constant communication with the assigners from those regions too."

While there haven't been too many issues covering area games, there are fewer referees than there used to be.

"On some nights it is really busy," Zerr said. "You end up using younger guys to do games that I never had the opportunity to do when I was just starting out which is maybe good, maybe bad."

"There is a shortage," Ukestad said. "A lot of the older guys are getting out. They've put in their time and their due diligence but there is more of them getting out than young guys are coming in. It's not like it used to be where you had guys waiting around ready to work."

Ukestad is one official who has been at it since Ronald Reagan was president.

"I got into it by watching my dad coach and officiate for many years when I was a kid," Ukestad said. "I always thought it would be a good way to stay in the game and earn a little bit extra pocket cash.

"I said that I would make a decision to keep going or not at age 60," he said. "I am four years away from that but my health is still good and I still enjoy it. It's when you don't enjoy it that you need to get out. If you are just there for the money, you shouldn't be there. You should be there to make the game of basketball and football better for the kids."

Ukestad has been refereeing basketball for 36 seasons and has been a football official since 2016. He also was a track and field official for 10 years.

"I enjoy being part of the game, the atmosphere and more importantly, my buddies who do it with me," Ukestad said. "I like spending time with those guys whether it's in the car on the way there or on the way back when we talk about the game. You are all a part of the same fraternity."

Ukestad is doing his best to keep that fraternity strong.

Ukestad puts on an officials camp every summer in Jamestown, offering younger officials the chance to learn more about the game and hone their skills out on the court. While attendance at camps is not required, Zerr said those just entering the officiating realm would greatly benefit from the opportunities offered.

"It's totally different than playing the game," Zerr said of officiating. "Everyone thinks they know the rules, but until you sit down with the rule book you don't know much about the game."

Even with all the studying and practice, all three officials admitted that some calls slip through the cracks.

"I think almost every game you get a little bit nervous," Zerr said. "If you are reffing, you want to do a good job. We're all going to make bad calls — there's no doubt about it. Occasionally I'll make a call and know at that moment that I made a bad call and it's like, oh boy.

"You want to do a good job every night," he said. "When you are out there you want to give everyone a fair opportunity to win the game. You don't want to take the game away from anybody."

Thielges added:

"It's more than walking into the gym, putting on your uniform, grabbing your whistle, going out onto the floor and working. There's always more that goes into it. We're trying to make sure that we are all on the same page and that we are learning from our mistakes.

"When we are in a game, we're really not thinking about a lot of the things people think we're thinking about," he said. "We're not necessarily thinking about who's playing, we're not thinking about who we want to win or who we want to lose. We're out there trying to get the calls right."

While the bluster and heckling from the stands might deter some people from getting involved in officiating, Ukestad said the good far outweighs the bad.

"The older I get, the worse my hearing gets so that helps," Ukestad said of hearing negative comments. "If we have a young ref out on the floor we will let coaches know that if they have something to say, say it to one of us older guys.

"We are there to help (everyone)," he said. "We're big on sportsmanship and we try to help players and coaches with that and most of the time it seems to work."

All three longstanding officials said those interested in officiating should reach out to a member of the Jamestown Officials Association to get started. There is no minimum age required to begin officiating.

"Try it, give it a whirl, you might like it," Ukestad said to interested parties. "You might like the atmosphere. You might like the guys you are doing it with. You might find out that a little extra cash in your pocket can be helpful. If you can bring a young guy in and have him for at least three years, usually he's hooked after that."