Sparked by a need for more basketball officials around the state eight years ago, Magdalena coach Jori Mirabal began an officiating program with a plan of hanging whistles around the neck of his varsity players. It’s a move that has paid for itself in many ways.

The New Mexico Activities Association had already begun a recruitment program to attract more people into officiating when Mirabal hit upon the idea of turning his players into certified officials. Magdalena had begun hosting quite a few tournaments at all levels of play, and it was taxing the NMMA’s officials’ program.

“If we wanted to go back, it started in 2010 because that’s when we started our kids coaching and officiating our little league. Then, in conjunction with NMAA, when they started pushing to recruit officials, that carried over, and it was a natural progression for those kids to go from Little League to junior high and JV games,” Mirabal said.

There was also a natural progression in the basketball IQ of his players, who have developed a well-rounded understanding of the game and what it’s like to walk in an official’s shoes.

“Oh, 100 percent they know what it’s like to be on the other side of the curtain,” Mirabal said. “I think it gives them a better understanding and appreciation of what the job takes.”

With work and dedication, the job can take you to higher levels of the game like it has Kyle Julian, who played on the Steers varsity (2020 graduate) and got his official certification as a sophomore. Now, the Socorro firefighter/EMT is calling games at the college level.

“I started officiating high school games after I graduated. I started with the JV C teams, and I’ve been calling for five years, and now, suddenly, I’m ready for college basketball,” Julian said.

Julian being among the officials assigned to college basketball is proof Magdalena’s is providing more than people to call their program’s games, and it’s providing opportunities for student-athletes. There are chances for players to earn money while the school saves money by not having to pay travel and per diem for more officials.

Krae Stephens focuses on the tight play in front of him.

“I like the money. You get paid $55 for JV games and $45 for junior high,” Krae Stephens said. “There’s also the benefit of better understanding basketball.”

On Jan. 9, Stephens, Ayden Herschbach, Joe Zamora, and Jeff Stuteville were busy calling the sub varsity games for the boys

“It helps a lot as a player just seeing the floor and everything. It gives us more respect for the referees whenever we don’t get stuff; their jobs are tough,” Zamora said.

It’s not all glitz and glamor either, and studying for the test to become certified is challenging.

“It’s kind of tedious. You got to learn a lot of things,” Herschbach said. “I know a lot more now. I know more about traveling, so it’s easier not to travel now as a player. It makes a player more solid.”

Adding to the young officials’ knowledge base are after-action reviews with more experienced officials like Karl Martin and Pete Ulibarri, who know their profession is hurting for new blood.

“It’s important that we bring up newer officials. We must because we are getting older, the players are getting younger, and the officials are getting older. It’s important that we do try to recruit if we can. Start them at the lowest level possible, and then bring them along and train them. We’re looking to give them the proper training and tools they need to succeed,” Martin said.

Ayden Herschbach moves for a better angle of the action.

Ulibarri can see the results on the court. “What I see out here today is amazing, and I’ve never seen it before. I’ve been around this sport for 25-plus years. They’re doing a great thing. I’m amazed at what I’ve seen displayed here today,” Ulibarri said.

Coach Mirabal’s son Jorrell is another example of Magdalena’s successfully adding to the New Mexico high school officials. A 2018 graduate of Magdalena High School, he’s officiated games since his sophomore year, and his career includes calling the first rounds of the state tournament. Like Julian, Mirabal has been returning to give back to the program.

“Every chance I’ve had, I go down and either work with them as a partner in those games, or I’ll work along the sidelines during the games and talk to them during dead balls and halftime, and especially afterward, we’ll have some little discussions,” Jorrell Mirabal said. “What’s been cool is these guys are like sponges, which has led to their success on the basketball court. They’re always asking me questions and want to know this rule and that rule in this situation. We talk about specific scenarios, then a lot about positioning, how to get good angles, and what to look for out there on the court.”

It turns out that being an official is also an excellent job for someone in college.

“It’s a very rewarding profession, and I’ll say right now it’s not for everyone. The fans, players, coaches, it can be a little rough being an official. You have to learn to have some thick skin, but I have a blast doing it. I mean, having played, it’s an amazing way to give back to the game and stay in the game to stay in shape and see some great basketball,” Jorrell Mirabal said. “It’s been the perfect college job for me. You practically make your schedule. You block the days you’re not free if I have exams this week or this day. I feel like I can make my own schedule. It’s pretty decent money for what it is, and it’s a blast. I enjoy every second.”