BY CHAD DARE firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — DANVILLE — The 2014 NJCAA Division II National Tournament featured a lot first-time accomplishments.
There were six teams make their first-ever appearance in the Division II Tournament and when it was all said and done on Saturday night, the Phoenix College Bears had claimed their first-ever men’s basketball national title.
But there was another first-timer that actually had ties to Vermilion County.
Referee Tony Rodriguez, who grew up in Bismarck, was one of the 18 officials that worked the tournament this past weekend at the Mary Miller Gymnasium.
“It was an absolute honor,’’ said Rodriguez, who now lives in Casey. “A lot of referees work the whole season to get this honor and only a very few of us get the chance to come here. It’s a great pleasure to be selected into elite group of officials.’’
Rodriguez, who mainly works the NJCAA’s Mid-West Athletic Conference and the Great Rivers Athletic Conference, admitted is was shocked when he got the phone call.
“I would have been happy to just work one game in this tournament, but I got the opportunity to work five of them,’’ said Rodriguez. “Everything is so intensified at this level and the talent is amazing.
“And the referee talent is just as good.’’
The biggest thing about working the collegiate game for Rodriguez is the accountability.
“Every one of these games is being broadcast and anyone in the country can watch it,’’ he said. “It makes you very aware of what you are doing at all times on the court.
“Also at this level, you are basically hired by one individual, who assigns the games for the conferences, instead of at the high school level, where you are an independent contractor being hired by several different schools.’’
This past week’s assign in the NJCAA Division II National Tournament was right up there with working the 2012 IHSA Class 2A State Championship Game for Rodriguez.
“That was also a great opportunity,’’ he said. “I got to work with two of my best friends in that tournament.’’
Also working that title game was James Fisher of Casey and Kirk Hacker of Neoga.
But this week’s tournament at the Mary Miller Gymnasium gave Rodriguez a special opportunity.
“I got to meet some old friends that I haven’t seen in a very, very long time,’’ he said, remembering his days at Bismarck-Henning. “I went there until my eighth grade year and then we moved south. There were some people that I saw this week that I hadn’t seen since we moved.
“I’m also close enough that my family was able to come up here and watch a few games.’’
In his 15-year career, Rodriguez has worked Danville Area Community College games at the Mary Miller Gymnasium, but his five games, culminating with the fifth-place game between Wayne County Community College and Cincinnati State Technical and Community College on Saturday were a unique experience.
“I’m just glad that I got this opportunity,’’ he said.
Most of the officials that work the NJCAA Division II National Tournament in the past have gone on to do NCAA Division I games. As a matter of fact, K.B. Burdette Jr. and Brad Gaston, who have worked the National Tournament before are regulars in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“I just mainly do the junior college games,’’ Rodriguez said. “A lot of these guys haven’t seen their homes in 12-15 days. I’ve got three sons that I’m very dedicated to seeing them play their athletics and I don’t know if I could be away from home that long.’’
Rodriguez says his oldest son, who is 13, is probably going to be a baseball player for Casey-Westfield, but he wasn’t sure about the other two.