In the 50 years since Congress passed Title IX legislation in order to create equal educational opportunities, huge strides have been made for female students to participate in athletics.
But the advancement of opportunities wasn’t just for the athletes. It also opened a door which ushered in a generation of female sports officials.
Betty Near is one of those officials whose long and distinguished career as a high school and collegiate volleyball official is a direct result of the opportunities provided through Title IX. Unlike many today who entered officiating after having played the sport, Betty didn’t have those opportunities before first climbing the ladder (literally) in 1971. She was encouraged to take up the sport by Macia Tiesenga (a nationally-ranked collegiate official) who told Betty – who had been involved in athletics recreationally – that athletes make the best officials because of their understanding of competition.
“I’m frequently asked whether I got into officiating because I played volleyball. I tell them I didn’t play because girls volleyball didn’t exist when I was in school," Near said. "I try to share the story of Title IX every chance I get, to show them that they now have opportunities to both play and officiate because of those that came before them.”
Near has spent more than 45 years as a registered MHSAA official and is still going strong. That run has included six appearances as a Finals official. She recalls how at one of those Finals, an injury to her knee created a change in mechanics for the entire state.
“When I first began officiating in the 70s, the MHSAA had the umpires (R2s today) kneel underneath the net to look at blockers," she said. "This was quite dangerous and pretty ineffective.
"Officiating at the collegiate level, I had been trained to stand at the pole and look down the net. With this background, and seeing as my knee was still hurting from an earlier injury, I decided to use this mechanic.”
Sue Martin, the MHSAA director for volleyball at the time, approached Betty following her match. Near was certain that she was going to receive an earful. Instead, Martin asked the justification for using the mechanic, and they discussed the pros and cons of each. It was ultimately decided moving forward the umpire would take a position standing at the pole.
Mechanics changes aren’t the only effect Near has had on the sport. She was instrumental in the start of the West Michigan Volleyball Officials Association in 1984 and continues to help lead and grow that organization (now with more than 125 members). This has allowed her to work with the community, raising nearly $125,000 for scholarships for graduating high school seniors. And one of her biggest contributions remains her role in recruiting and mentoring new officials – especially helping to develop the next generation of female officials.
“Mentoring is a gratifying thing,” said Near, “especially when I receive emails or calls thanking me for helping them understand specific rules or situations and improving their skill sets. Watching someone I have mentored over 20 years work her way up to officiate multiple state tournaments (pleases me).”
Now officiating primarily at the college level, Betty still reserves Thursdays during the season to officiate MHSAA contests. She does this for the purpose of staying connected to high school students and officials and to build on the growth of female registered officials, though she also recognizes that challenges remain for female officials advancing through the system.
One of the natural barriers that apply to women more often than men is that women who begin families sometimes find difficulties continuing to officiate with their other responsibilities. While home lives can be difficult to navigate (for both women and men), officiating school sports provides a flexible alternative to stay active, remain involved in athletics, give back to the community, develop camaraderie and earn some extra cash.
Another hurdle that Near identifies for female officials, unfortunately, is a continuation of the “good ol' boy network.” She is reminded of a not-so-distant-past example when she and another female official had been selected to officiate the Regional round of the MHSAA Tournament; and even though both were well-established collegiate officials the host athletic director insisted that less-experienced male officials work as the R1 and R2 and the women work as line judges because the men would have better control of the tough matchup.
Of course, that kind of mindset isn’t based in fact, and many of the MHSAA’s best officials in all sports are women. Especially in girls sports, it is important that the student athletes see officials who represent them; but the MHSAA seeks female officials in all sports, including those dominated by male participants. This year will once again include a female officiating in the MHSAA Football Finals. Female officials also have worked Finals in baseball, boys basketball, ice hockey and wrestling.
The door that was opened for women and girls with the passing of Title IX a half-century ago only provides the opportunity. Capitalizing still requires stepping through the door to take full advantage of the opportunities provided. Near wants to encourage anyone to join the avocation of officiating, but especially young women.
“My hook is that the officiating is fun, and it is an activity that can be an avocation that can pay (in many ways) throughout their lifetimes," she said.
Postseason Assignments: Officials assignments for fall sports tournaments have been released. Congratulations to all selected to officiate this year.
Speaking of tournament assignments, a change will be made this year that allows basketball officials to submit their availability to work together as a crew. Crews can be set for the boys and girls tournaments separately. The hope is that this will encourage more officials to seek postseason consideration, knowing they can choose with whom they will officiate. Eligible individuals not included with a crew will be assigned a crew by MHSAA staff.
For all winter sports officials, make sure to complete all requirements for postseason consideration. Please remember that officials in basketball, competitive cheer, gymnastics, ice hockey and wrestling must opt-in to the tournament by indicating their tournament availability dates HERE. All additional requirements such as completion of tournament exams and submission of regular-season schedule also remain in place.
Officials Review Committee: The Officials Review Committee, consisting of school administrators, officials and assigners from around the state, convened in early October to discuss issues and concerns involving officiating. A number of proposals were made to the MHSAA Representative Council. You can find these and other discussion items by reviewing the minutes HERE.
Know Your Rules
RULING If #7 comes back into the game, he only needs to wait until the next stoppage of play. If he will be replaced by #12 though, #12 can enter the game only at the next legal substitution opportunity.
It’s Your Call
REVIEW Last month’s play involved a suspect block by a defensive player (found here). The block by B17 is correctly flagged for an illegal block below the waist. While not widely known by spectators, blocks below the waist (except for linemen immediately at the snap) are illegal for players on both sides of the ball. In this case, since the block was by the defense, the penalty is enforced 15 yards from the end of the run.
VOLLEYBALL Officiating ball handling is the topic of this month’s "It’s Your Call." This rally ends following the pass of a back-row player. What’s the call?
There is a basketball court 5,000 miles from Sterling Heights with “MHL” painted on the center court.
It’s not the name of a local basketball league in the village where it is located – Siricino, Macedonia. Instead, it stands for Madison, Haleigh and Lola, the three daughters of longtime Michigan basketball coach, referee and athletic director Loren Ristovski.
“My dad loved going back (to Macedonia),” said Madison Ristovski. “He’s probably gone every summer since about 2017. His whole family still lives there. He loved going and visiting and seeing everyone.
“It was always a goal of his to give back to where he came from. He and Mom donated to the village to build a soccer field and basketball court with lights and everything. It was a pretty big deal. It’s something he wanted to do for them back home. We were very proud he did that.”
Loren Ristovski, athletic director for Taylor schools, died earlier this month while on leave to have surgery on his foot. It was a shock to his family, friends, and the Taylor community.
“It was a heavy blow,” said Matt Joseph, girls basketball coach at Utica Ford and a longtime friend of the Ristovski family. “It was like getting kicked in the gut. Basketball was his passion. Next to his family, basketball was definitely No. 1. He loved the game and all the intricacies of it. He loved seeing kids excel.”
Ristovski emigrated from Macedonia to Michigan when he was 9. He went to high school at Hamtramck St. Florian, where he excelled at basketball. He went to Wayne State University to get a degree in criminal justice and had plans to become a lawyer.
Before he could take the Law School Admission Test, however, basketball came calling.
“He started coaching at Henry Ford High School and Fuhrmann Middle School,” Madison said. “Once he realized how much he enjoyed coaching, he decided to go into education. He stayed the entire time. He never went to law school.”
Loren Ristovski became the head coach at Harper Woods but gave that up when his daughters were ready to start playing in high school.
“He gave up coaching varsity at Harper Woods so he could be at every one of my games,” Madison said.
He also coached them as youngsters, often teaming with Joseph to coach an AAU team.
“I met him when Madison was 5,” Joseph said. “He and I decided to put our daughters in the same parks and recreation team, and next thing you know we were coaching AAU.”
With Ristovski’s tutoring, Madison, Haleigh, and Lola all excelled at the game, each playing Division I college basketball after standout careers at Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett. In 2012, Liggett reached the Class C Final with all three starting. They combined for 55 of Liggett’s 57 points in the championship game, with Madison scoring 42 after earlier that week receiving the Miss Basketball Award.
Lola and Haleigh played at the University of Detroit Mercy, and Madison played at the University of Michigan. Today, Haleigh lives on the west side of the state and plays recreational basketball. Lola is a referee in the Catholic High School League as well as for the Division II Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and also works area Division III college games.
Madison is a teacher and the varsity girls basketball coach at Sterling Heights Stevenson.
“He taught us the game when we were very, very young,” Madison said. “We grew up in the gym with him and watched him coach his team. He coached me my whole life. He was very instrumental – he taught us all those things you need to become an athlete, and more importantly the things you need to do to succeed in life.”
Her dad is the reason she became a coach.
“Watching my dad coach and seeing the impact he had on his high school athletes and even the kids in our church community – it inspired me to want to coach as well and give back like he did,” she said. “I watched him with my teammates and the impact he had on them. I thought it would be so cool if I could do the same for others.”
Loren Ristovski left a legacy at Taylor, too. School officials recounted several stories of how he balanced athletic budgets with the needs of student-athletes. He would lead fundraising efforts, created the Bitty Ball program for youth basketball players and cheerleaders and helped students become certified officials – and then would hire them to officiate games.
“He didn’t say no,” said Taylor boys basketball coach Chris Simons. “We made it work. We didn’t go out and ask people for a bunch of money. We would just do it. We all pulled together and made it work. Loren did everything he could to make things as pretty and presentable as he could with the budget we had.”
Ristovski also put on summer camps at both Taylor and at the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse in Sterling Heights, where he lived. He commuted about an hour to Taylor every day.
“He loved Taylor,” Madison said. “He loved who he worked with and the students. He included us, too. My mom would run the ticket table or do the scoreboard clock. I don’t know how many times I sold tickets for volleyball tournaments with him. He loved his people and loved having us there with him.”
Loren Ristovski, who played professional basketball in Europe during the late 1980s, ran well over 20 marathons in his life, including the Boston Marathon. He was a registered MHSAA official for 16 years, and in the weeks before his passing he refereed a varsity game in Rochester with his daughter, Lola.
“He looked at basketball, I think, differently than other people do,” Madison said. “He saw it as a way to have relationships with other people, to help people achieve their goals and to find meaningful relationships with others. It was more than just a game to him.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Loren Ristovski, far left, and wife Svetlana support their lineup of Division I basketball-playing daughters – from left: Madison, Haleigh and Lola. (Middle) Loren Ristovski heads an all-family officiating crew with Lola and his brother Dean Ristovski. (Below) The daughters’ initials “MHL” glow on the court the family funded in Macedonia. (Photos courtesy of Madison Ristovski.)