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Faithful Fan | NBA ref is example of women excelling as game officials

Last month, referees Natalie Sago and Jenna Schroeder were part of a three-person crew assigned an NBA game between Charlotte and Orlando, the first time in NBA history that two women were assigned to work a regular-season contest together.

Sago is familiar to the basketball community in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. She spent two years officiating high school games in the area. Her college officiating includes stints in the Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, Summit League and MAAC conferences, among others.

In high school, Sago was part of a Farmington basketball team that finished as state runner-up in Missouri in 2007. She played softball for Jefferson College (2007-09) and Drury University (2009-11), serving as team captain for both schools. Sago earned a bachelor’s degree in K-12 physical education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2013.

Mark Probst, assigner of officials for the Catholic Youth Apostolate’s CYC Sports program, has known Sago for about 15 years.

She learned refereeing from her dad, who also was a referee, and was encouraged by Pat Burns, former athletic director at Farmington High.

Probst, who for years assigned referees for high school games in the St. Louis region, said Sago started doing junior high games, then junior varsity and varsity. “She had a passion for wanting to be better all the time. She’s has the right personality, worked hard and listened to people. Most of all, she has a feel for the game, which is hard to teach,” Probst said.

Sago gave her best to whatever assignment she was given, and other officials enjoyed working with her, Probst said. When she was asked to work the McDonald’s high school all-American game, a huge tribute, she took it in stride, never making it seem as if she was better than anyone else.

Girls and women are increasing in the CYC and high school officiating ranks, Probst explained. He cited several who have excelled, including Shanna Lonsberry, who started in CYC and is one of the state high school Final Four referees. Casey Brown is another. She started refereeing at St. Ferdinand Parish, has risen in the high school ranks and still does some CYC games. Shannon Schafer started at St. Angela Merici, officiated in the state finals in volleyball and basketball, and now is busy with her career as assistant principal/activities director at Troy Middle School and with her children. She was known as a mentor for other female officials.

The CYC focuses on coaching and refereeing as a ministry. A shortage of officials is seen in all of the CYC sports and in high school sports in the St. Louis area. In the CYC, refereeing is convenient because refs work at their home parish. They take an online test and go to a clinic, which is offered in four geographic areas. The CYC works with coaches to ensure they treat officials with respect and for coaches to reach out to spectators and monitor their behavior at games.

This year also has seen other developments, such as KMOX Radio broadcasting several Saint Louis University Billikens’ women’s basketball games. Earlier this month, Sarah Thomas became the first woman to referee a Super Bowl. Thomas was part of a seven-person crew officiating and worked as a down judge. It’s about time women are getting recognized for their athletic performances and for getting the opportunities to excel as officials and in other areas of sports.

Kenny is a staff writer for the Review and a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Oakville.

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