BILLINGS — A timeout called, veteran official Jay Lemelin joined his partner at center court of the Billings West gym.
Lemelin, with 37 years of Montana Officials Association experience, was in charge. He did most of the talking, and his hand gestures and pointing to various spots on the court made it clear he was imparting some of that knowledge.
His partner nodded her head now and then, and offered a quick observation to the conversation. The first horn blew, signaling it was almost time for the teams to break their huddles, and father and daughter went to their separate spots on the court to continue officiating the game.
Jeanann Lemelin, a former three-sport standout at Billings Senior and basketball player at Montana State Billings before graduating in 2020, has dabbled in officiating for a while. Originally, she started doing junior high and travel ball gigs while at MSUB to help pay her part for a team overseas trip.
But she caught a more serious bug recently, and joined the MOA. Jeanann officiated volleyball matches in the fall and is now doing basketball games, all at the sub-varsity level. On her current path, she won’t be eligible to officiate varsity games until 2022-23.
Saturday, Jan. 23, at the West-Senior girls junior varsity game, marked the first time Jay and Jeanann worked a high school contest together. They did a JV boys game together the next Saturday.
“I really like reffing with my dad, because I feel comfortable,” Jeanann said, noting that she and her father have worked junior high and club tournament games together. “He just sets a really high standard and that’s what I want to become.”
Refereeing is in the Lemelin DNA. Jeanann and her older brother, Kale, who referees in the Helena area, are third generation officials. Jay’s father, Bob, was elected to the MOA Hall of Fame posthumously in 2002 and Jay's younger brother, Greg, officiated until just a few years ago.
So, Jay, of course, is a proud papa. It’s not necessarily that Kale and Jeanann are following in his footsteps, but as much, or more, that his children are helping the profession. Referee shortages have been a problem for several years now, so adding Jeanann to the roll is a blessing.
“We’re having a difficult time recruiting and retaining officials,” said Jay, who is the MOA’s Region 7 director. “Seventy-five percent of officials that start, they quit within three years. The fact that she’s interested, I’m pleased. If she decides one day that she’s too busy, fine, but if not, it’s a great opportunity for her to stay involved in the game, get a little workout, and earn a little extra money.”
Both Jeanann and Jay are a little weary of any perception of nepotism. As the regional director, it’s Jay’s responsibility to make the assignments for his pool of referees. A computer program helps him out, but these days the referee numbers are so low that even the most seasoned refs have to take on regular sub-varsity assignments.
That’s how he and Jeanann ended up together for the Jan. 23 game in the first place. No one else was available, so Jay handed it to himself.
And Jeanann doesn’t want others to think there’s any favoritism coming from her father. It’s much like a coach-son/daughter correlation, only in their situation they are doing the same job.
“When Jeanann goes out and referees with other people and when other people are there to watch her referee, they’re recognizing that it’s not because she’s my daughter,” Jay said. “She’s a good official. And I am absolutely prejudiced, or biased, you know, but I’m also a little harder on my own kids than other people.”
Jeanann insisted she’s in it for the long haul. She’ll be attending graduate school for speech pathology outside of Billings next year, but wherever she lands, she’s hoping to be able to continue officiating so she can gain the experience and expertise to become a varsity official.
That’s great and all. But does she have 37 more years in her, like her father?
“I mean, I hope that when I’m — I don’t know how old he is, 56 years old? — that I’m still refereeing,” she said. “I think that would be super cool.”
She has mentioned one thing to her father. Hang on to your whistle for at least a couple more years.
“I told my dad that before he’s done reffing, he, my brother and I all have to ref a game together,” Jeanann said.
That’s an easy call.
Email Mike Scherting at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsSchert