BELFAST — The twelve high school students certainly had played basketball at various levels, but, this winter, especially for eight one weekend, they got the opportunity to experience the game from a new perspective, namely, as one of those officiating rather than participating in the court sport.

For the teenagers, being behind the whistle instead of the recipient of calls made by those blowing it put an entirely different spin on hoops.

A dozen Belfast Area High School students — James Ritter, Rico Washington, Gary Gale, Ethan Abbott, Madison Shorey, Madison Goodwin, Audra Faulkingham, Brynne Sawyer, Jacob Lindelof, Natalie Hamlin, Halle Tripp and Jeremiah Porter — officiated youth games and eight (Abbott, Ritter, Washington, Gale, Shorey, Sawyer, Faulkingham and Goodwin) took a four-day class- and mechanics-oriented course by Scott Cournoyer, Eastern Maine Board #111 official, before putting their new-found knowledge into practice in a youth tournament Friday through Sunday, March 18-20 in Waldo County gymnasiums.

Photo courtesy of Scott Cournoyer

Those eight, certified Junior International Association of Approved Basketball Officials after their classes, worked the third- and fourth-grade games in the Lions’ Den event hosted by the Waldo County YMCA.

The youngsters said they enjoyed their experience and time giving back to the community.

“It was a great experience reffing the third- and fourth-graders,” said Goodwin. “I saw a basketball game from a different view and it honestly was not easy. It’s hard trying to make the right calls and after the call is made I always wonder if I had made the right one or not. I had a lot of fun doing it and it got easier as I did more games and I would gladly do it again.”

Sawyer added, “It was a really awesome experience to be able to participate in the third-fourth basketball tournament. I have been on many different sides of the court because I was a player and then a manager and now an official. It was definitely a new experience but I felt pretty prepared because we were able to take a junior officiating class the week before to learn the rules and mechanics. It was nice to work alongside my dad who is also a basketball official and helped Scott during the tournament. I would definitely be interested in taking the official class next year to be able to be a real official.”

Shorey said the course and tourney were “fun and very informative. Officiating gives you a greater knowledge for the game along with more appreciation for officials in games we play ourselves. I am super thankful to have had the opportunity to gain experience in basketball officiating and hope to continue officiating from here on out.”

Cournoyer said the youngsters participated in a nationally-certified program. He said it was a unique opportunity for high school students to become Junior IAABO officials. Students gained volunteer hours, and on certification, officiated third- and fourth-grade travel team tourney games.

The commitment was classroom and mechanics training of approximately 90 minutes Monday through Thursday, March 14-17. Students had to attend at least three of the four days to earn certification.

Cournoyer was courtside at Lions’ Den tournament games to provide support and feedback for the young officials

“This is a fantastic opportunity for not only giving back to the community and a sport they all care about, but also will add another dimension, and understanding of the game to all players when they see the game through officials’ eyes,” Cournoyer said before the tourney.

He said the BAHS students who took the course and worked the tourney “deserve all the credit.”

Cournoyer has been an active member of Eastern Maine Basketball Board #111 for a few years and “I love it. I officiate for the kids. I am also very aware that all sports, across the state, are in serious need of more officials, but how can I help fix this? Whenever I attempt to recruit new adults, pretty much every time they are quick to express that they have no desire to be yelled at by fans and coaches, and they thank me for being willing to do this thankless job for the kids, and the conversation ends. How can we solve this puzzle? We need to find some young fresh people with a passion for the sport, and little to no preconceived opinions about the potential negatives. Time to get creative.”

And that is what he did.

In November, Cournoyer received a message from Sophie Pfander of the Waldo County YMCA who was in need of officials for regular youth play and Cournoyer’s was the only name she had.

“After a brief conversation to clarify the exact need, I proposed an idea,” Cournoyer said. “I understand that by the travel league they were committed to, by rule, board-certified officials for fifth and sixth grade was required. I asked, what if I contacted the high school coaches, and with their support and endorsement, we used varsity players to officiate the third- and fourth-grade games? I would volunteer to meet them before the game, give them some basic instructions, and then sit courtside during the game to support them with any questions that come up and provide feedback to them to help them improve. Furthermore ensuring they would not be yelled at by fans or coaches for making mistakes. ”

After talking with the high school coaches and parents, who “were extremely supportive of the idea,” Cournoyer was able to get volunteers, including Abbott, Lindelof, Ritter, Faulkingham, Hamlin, Tripp and Porter. While Cournoyer was unable to attend every youth game, he said he was fortunate fellow official Ben Sawyer was willing to fill in.

“Ben or I would meet with those volunteers for about 30 minutes before each game to give them directions and explain to the coaches what was happening,” Cournoyer said. “Everyone was super supportive and the kids really enjoyed it. After her first game, Halle Tripp said, ‘I have a whole new level of respect and appreciation for officials now, that was really hard!’ We continued through the winter with high school players officiating and it went perfectly.”

When Pfander asked if Cournoyer would assign the annual postseason third-fourth hoop tourney, he suggested they take it to the next level. He would get more high school players, have them do classroom training, get them in official uniforms and have them officiate the tournament.

Cournoyer said, as a thank you to the high school, the Waldo County YMCA agreed to make a donation to the boosters club, based on the amount of volunteer hours the students contributed.

That sounded like a win-win to Cournoyer.

Due to other commitments, not all the same students were able to commit to the classes or tourney, but Shorey, Brynne Sawyer, Washington, Gale and Goodwin stepped up, Cournoyer said.

At that point, Cournoyer planned the education for them to get the tools and properly prepare for success. “As luck would have it things once again worked out,” he said.

While attending Eastern Maine Board #111’s annual spring business meeting, Cournoyer shared with others his idea that already was in motion, and “encouraged my colleagues to also pursue this concept in their communities if possible and I would be happy to share what I have done to get them started. I said we are perfect people with the knowledge to teach these students what they need to be successful.”

It was at that time Cournoyer learned, through fellow official T.J. Halliday, IAABO had launched a Junior IAABO program designed specifically for teaching young adults how to officiate. That was music to Cournoyer’s ears.

A few emails later Cournoyer provided Donnie Eppley the email addresses of the eight students who had signed-up for the opportunity to take the class. Cournoyer was provided an instructor’s online login with the training material, and all the students got their individual logins.

BAHS approved use of a classroom the week before the youth tourney and there was mechanical training at Troy Howard Middle School. Officials Martina Nikolova-Graffam and Ben Sawyer also helped with instruction, Cournoyer said.

Cournoyer had the opportunity to talk with Julie Goupille of Northern Maine Board 150 and learned the Jr. IAABO program was “kind of my baby.”

Cournoyer said she was excited to hear the program was being used in Maine as she played a major role in getting it developed and launched.

“The program was absolutely perfectly structured with thought-provoking topics, questions, and example videos of proper basketball officiating,” he said. “Each section had excellent questions that served as a recap of the material to help with getting the concepts to stick.”

The Waldo County YMCA Lion’s Den third- and fourth-grade tournament hosted 12 teams — six boys and six girls. The games were scheduled as round-robin play on Saturday starting at 8 a.m. and ended at 6 p.m. with each team playing three games. The Jr. IAABO officials were assigned at least two boys games and two girls games during the day.

“I received countless compliments from coaches and parents on how well they did and I couldn’t agree more,” Cournoyer said. ” These young adults absolutely blew me away and exceeded my expectations with how quickly they adjusted throughout the day improving at every new game they covered. Ethan Abbott, James Ritter, Rico Washington, Gary Gale, Madison Shorey, Brynne Sawyer, Audra Faulkingham and Madison Goodwin deserve recognition for all their hard work and commitment to make this all a big success.”

“Thank you for the time you’ve invested in these young people,” Goupille said. “Hopefully they will seriously consider becoming IAABO-certified in the near future, once they are old enough.”

Mary Alice McLean, BAHS principal said, “Fantastic news … and a great example of creative problem-solving and collaboration.”

Added Jessica Woods, BAHS assistant principal, “We are thrilled that our students took advantage of this opportunity. It’s a win-win for everyone, including the younger players who now see this as an opportunity for themselves during their high school career.”

Russell Werkman of the Waldo County YMCA said “not only were [the young officials] great on the court, they were polite and professional off of it, too. I am very impressed with this group of young adults.”

Werkman added: “Bringing on new officials is so important for us to maintain the leagues we have and is a great opportunity to give students authentic — and challenging — responsibilities.”

Cournoyer said the “cherry on top of this amazing experience” was the young officials said they enjoyed doing it and look forward to doing it again; whether more third- and fourth-grade games, or when they are eligible to become board-certified school officials and use it as a part-time job in college officiating school games.

“I am so excited to see where this goes from here as this is hopefully only the beginning of something great in Maine as I hope other communities partner with their local officials and this spreads across the state,” Cournoyer said.