RIO RANCHO, N.M. — The following paragraph, which appeared in a guest column by Dana Pappas, commissioner of officials for the New Mexico Activities Association, in last Sunday’s Observer may have seemed ominous:
“When officials have finally had enough, you will not have the luxury of paying the price of admission to scream, yell and act less than human because, without officials, high school sports cease to exist.”
Today, though, it’s a grim reality.
“I did read the article; Dana did a great job,” said Kayla Peterson, on the front lines on area basketball courts as an official.
Peterson certainly doesn’t want to see high school sports disappear. Her family’s life revolves around basketball, and now she’s following in her parents’ footsteps — and wearing stripes — officiating the game of basketball.
Kayla, a 2016 RRHS graduate, and her sister, Lexi (RRHS Class of 2018), played at La Cueva High School and then at Rio Rancho High School when their father, Scott, assumed the reins of the girls basketball program in 2015. Before that, her three uncles and an aunt, all with the surname Steffensen, had played on Rams teams. And before Scott Peterson entered the coaching profession, he’d been a successful prep player at La Cueva and Valley high schools.
“I started when I was about 17 years old,” she said. “I did my first game with my uncle, Daniel Steffensen (a member of the 2006-07 RRHS state champs). I wanted to make some money; it was a little AAU tournament. It was really fun — I started falling in love with it.”
Following graduation in May 2016, she headed to Eastern Arizona College and to help pay her way, “I was officiating” more basketball games.
“At EAC last year, the girls program was suffering. I was doing high school games and the assistant coach asked me three or four times to come and play for them,” she said. “I was even doing a men’s league, kicking guys out left and right. (One night), I had a partner who was drunk and I was 19 years old — I’m sorry, I just love officiating.”
Now 20, she spent two years at EAC before returning to New Mexico and is now taking classes at CNM’s West Side campus — and working for the City of Rio Rancho Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department as a recreation leader.
Her debut as a varsity high school official occurred late last year in Moriarty; she’s been able to do in the neighborhood of six to eight games a week, enjoying the game and the $54 per game she pockets.
“I’m mainly doing varsity every week — five or more, and a little bit of (freshman and junior varsity games).”
Peterson admitted that during her days as a feisty guard for the Bears and then Rams, she wasn’t a favorite of the men and women in stripes.
“As a player, I was one of those people they talk about,” she recalled. “I would get T’d up a lot; I would do things that would frustrate the other girls. There was a six-foot post from Eldorado; I shoved her, she came back and shoved me. Officials T’d us both up.
“I would be like, ‘I don’t think that was a foul, man,'” she said.
Obviously, to be successful wearing stripes, she had to change that attitude.
“I think the biggest thing for me was it kept me close to the game,” she said, with a better understanding that maybe, “That wasn’t a foul, man.
“People are going to make mistakes. It’s different on the floor than six rows up in the bleachers, or how a coach sees it from the bench,” she explained, even suggesting officiating for others who love the game.
“I would recommend it, if they can handle the excitement and how they handle the coaches — and how an official talks to the coach,” she said. “People expect me at my (young) age, that I can’t talk to them because I’m only 20. But I understand coaches get emotional.
“Overall, the New Mexico Officials Association is awesome; they have our backs when something happens,” she said. “It’s a fun atmosphere. I really appreciate all they do for me — and I’ll continue to grow.”
By “grow,” she means taking her whistle to the next level, maybe even working college games.
Understandably, her mother is proud of her and recalled her start with a whistle.
“I knew Scott from afar,” said Alyssa Peterson, older than her Steffensen siblings and attending Cibola High School because RRHS didn’t exist then. “He played basketball with my dad (Wally Steffensen, a regular at Rams games). I always had a crush on him. People don’t know that he was an amazing basketball player … They would leave school from Valley and they’d go play with my dad at the church on Thursday afternoon.
“Scott officiated for many years; he put himself through college doing it,” Alyssa said. “He and I met; then he introduced me to it. Instead of going out on dates, we’d go officiate together.”
That was back in 1999 or so, she said, remembering she was wary of blowing a whistle for men.
“I was real nervous about it, but Scott said, ‘You’re going to see the better the basketball is, the easier it is to officiate,” she recalled. “We got married and I officiated clear through being pregnant with Kayla; I stopped at about six months pregnant with her.
“Ref’ing men’s basketball is horrible.”
Now that her eldest daughter is wearing stripes, what does she think?
“I think you have to have a square jaw,” she said. “You have to be willing to deal with everything that comes with it: You have be willing to deal with the parents, the coaches and everything else.
“But I think what Dana said was spot-on, because I do feel that parents are ruining the game,” Alyssa said. “Until you’re on the floor officiating, it’s a whole different reality than just sitting in the stands and calling a travel or a foul or anything like that.”
Kayla agreed: “People don’t realize how hard officiating is. I want to make it fair and the best environment for the kids — it’s all about the 10 players on the court.
“After a lot of my games, I have had random fans or players say this is the best crew, (so) my hard work’s paying off.”