This past week, 18 of West Virginia’s best high school basketball officials followed the game action and blew their whistles at the 2023 WVSSAC Girls State Basketball Tournament in Charleston.

That action is being repeated when the ongoing boys state tournament got underway Tuesday at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center.

Four of last week’s girls tournament officials have Fayette County ties, and two of them wound up calling one of the state tournament championship games on Saturday.

Fayetteville resident Greg Fernett, who has officiated big games for various sports at the state championship level as well as more locally in a 33-year officiating career, worked his second girls state basketball tournament last week.

“In 2002, Jeff (Harding, New River Valley board official who worked the girls event alongside Harding last week) and I worked for the first one,” said Fernett. “Then Jeff moved. I came back with Bill Scott and Rob Pecora in 2007. I worked when O.J. Mayo and Patrick Patterson (the Huntington High team) was here (for the boys state tourney), and I’m back here again in 2023, back again at the girls state tournament.”

In his years wearing the stripes, Fernett has worked 14 state baseball tournaments, six Super Sixes in football and three state basketball tournaments.

The magnitude of officiating the games — just as with the players playing and the coaches coaching — means different things to different people. 

“On a personal note, it means I can still get up and down the floor with these younger guys,” said Fernett. “That means a lot to me.”

“It’s a learning experience,” Fernett stressed. “Here’s what I’ve told these guys: We come down here, we get proper care, we get proper training. And even ay my age, I’m learning. I’ve learned so much from our guys.

“And we take it back to our boards. We take it back to our people and say this is what they want. Now, you may choose to do it, but we all play by the rules. But there’s etiquette and there’s procedure that we follow. This is what we learned, and we learned it first-hand. If you’re interested and you want to work state tournaments, you want to work higher levels, this is what they want, and this is what we’re going to bring to you.” Then, the individual official has to make up his mind on how to continue, he noted.

“You’re going to have to pay your dues,” he said. “The quicker you learn, the more apt you are to come down.”

Like his crew mate, Harding was in his second year officiating the girls state basketball tournament last week.

An official for 20 years, Harding has yet to work the whistle at a boys state hoops tourney event, but he did work the Super Six football playoffs at Wheeling Island Stadium in 2019.

Harding said he officiated his first state tournament “way back in 2002, which was my 10th year (as an official, before a break of about 10 years). I came back here and started officiating again. Finally this year I got the opportunity to come back down.”

“It’s special,” said Harding, a Mt. Nebo resident with Oak Hill ties. “You’ve got a lot of your peers down here, people you know from across the state. To me, it’s an honor. 

“I’ve seen a lot of good officials work down here, and to be included in that group is an honor. At this point, you’ve got 18 officials calling the girls and 18 calling the boys. Across the state, there’s probably 500-600 officials. …”

Harding normally pairs up through the season with Fernett, Timmy Justice or Mike Price.

Harding first got into officiating “way back when I was 18 years old,” he said. “Of course, my dad (Gary Harding) got me into it. At that point, my dad was ready to give it up. He called for about 25 years. He got me into it, and I sort of got together with Greg there. Both times I’ve been to Charleston it’s been with Greg.

“It’s kind of a lifelong friendship. We’ve called football together. At one time, we called baseball together. Even when we’re not calling, we talk to each other 2-3 times a week.” Being on the road with officiating colleagues many nights a week allows time to further cultivate friendships, he added.

Fernett and Harding were partnered with Paul Ayers, of the Mon Valley board, last week on the Charleston Coliseum court.

Kirk McKown, a Fayetteville native now living in Gauley Bridge, officiated his first girls state basketball tournament last week, as did Southwestern board colleague Scott Brown, formerly from Oak Hill but now living in Charleston. Those two were partnered with Kanawha Southern board referee Clinton Giles during the week, and that trio wound up calling the Class A championship game between Cameron and Tucker County on Saturday.

“It’s just an honor to be here,” McKown said Friday. “It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to officiate and to even be considered to come down here it’s just a great honor. They’re doing a really great job with the tournament this year. I’ve been coming to tournaments for 40 years, and they do a really fine job. It’s first class. Being down here in Charleston is just great. The atmosphere has been nice.”

“All of my fellow officials that are here are really, really good guys,” McKown continued. “You want to be around good people, and they’re all really great people. And, you get to meet people from all over the state.” There’s a good camaraderie between all the officials, he said.

“We’re a little different,” said McKown. “We have our team of referees throughout the state, and people don’t understand the challenges we go through on a nightly basis, a daily basis, of working all day, traveling two hours to a game, and get home at 11 or 12 o’clock at night. And do it again the next day.” 

Of Saturday, McKown said, “It was just a great experience. I was very fortunate to be there.”

McKown put in a plug recruiting new bodies willing to at least explore becoming sports officials.

“Most everybody is refereeing six days a week right now because of the shortage,” he said. “I would like to say that anyone interested in becoming an official, come on out. Contact the SSAC, they’ll get you on the right board and get you in contact with the right person on that board. Go give it a try. We’re open to anybody.”

He said officiating allows him to maintain contact with a sport dear to his heart. “I played basketball, and I just love the game,” McKown said. “I absolutely love the game.”

For him, officiating requires offseason physical training, attending summer camps and other preparation. “You have to be physically and mentally ready to go.”

McKown said he was also “fortunate enough” recently to officiate the Mountain East Conference men’s basketball tournament. He estimated he wound up calling around 80 high school and college games this winter.

A 10-year official, Brown relished his first state tournament assignment.

“Oh, this is a huge honor, a huge accomplishment,” said Brown. “That was my goal when I started officiating, to get down here at least one time if I was good enough to do it. I’m just blessed to have the opportunity.”

Offering advice to those considering becoming an official, he said, “It’s a great hobby. If you like the game and you’ve been around the game for a while and you want to take part in the game, it’s a wonderful opportunity to make a little extra money on the side, you know use it for vacation money, but to be a part of the game and give back a little bit.”

“I’m grateful for the opportunity and happy to be here,” Brown concluded.

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