Just Ref It Youth Officials referees include, from left, Robert Aguirre, Sara Batrez, Ivan Gomez, Ahmed Nasir, Alex Arumbaro, Juan Carlos Soto and Anthony Trujillo. (Photo courtesy Just Ref It Youth Offi cials)

At basketball games, ticketholders see players, coaches and referees on the court all around the same age. However, the Isaac School District in Phoenix and Just Ref It Youth Officials have defied this norm and are training children to become referees.

Isaac Junior High and Udall Middle School students learned how to referee basketball through Anthony Estrada’s Just Ref It Youth Officials in Tolleson.

The 9-year-old program will make history Saturday, July 14, when the students referee the Junior High All-Star game during the 16th annual Native American Basketball Invitational at Talking Stick Resort Arena. This will be the youngest group of referees to ever officiate at the arena.

Estrada, the Just Ref It Youth Officials’ coordinator, started the program with the Isaac School District. The program now includes students from other districts, including the West Valley.

“We focus on life skills and teaching them to be a part of a team, wearing a uniform, managing a calendar, showing up on time, communication with peers, players and coaches, and working in a fast-paced environment and learning from mistakes,” Estrada said.

The program was a dream come true for Estrada, who served as a junior official.

“I started officiating when I was 12 because my two uncles, Dennis Trujillo and Frank Ramirez Sr., suggested I try it out. They gave me my first opportunity and supported me from day one. So this is my opportunity for me to reach out and help like I was,” Estrada said.

Estrada runs the program with Johnny Gonzales, the recreational activities liaison of the Isaac School District. Gonzales works with fourth- and fifth-grade students who participate in the program. Estrada said Gonzales is the program’s backbone.

Members of the referee community have taken a liking to this young group of students and have made donations to help the program thrive.

“We are part of a referee forum on Facebook and groups love them,” Estrada said. “I would post stuff and get a bunch of likes and some referees I never even met sent me money, whistles and bags for the kids.”

Refereeing at the Native American Basketball Invitational is monumental in size and prominence. One hundred and twenty-eight teams from the United States, Canada and New Zealand will compete. The young referees will be officials in the All-Star Game between the championship games.

Estrada said this program is more than just getting the kids in the game as officials. He believes the true end result is seeing the students mature. “All in all, it’s a success because they grow as individuals and the officiating is the icing on the cake,” Estrada said. 

Estrada plans to continue this program and hopes to see it grow. He will also be holding referee clinics with Valley high school students. Estrada states that he will continue to run the program with his motto, “Training Arizona’s youth, one official at a time.”

For more information, search “Just Ref It” on Facebook.