Four Natchez-based officials receive top honors for work with MHSAA

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 26, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Pull on a referee’s jersey, and what you have is a lesson in humility.

Nobody likes you. Every move you make is second-guessed 10 times over. And you are working in front of some people who are convinced you’ve got it out against their team.

So in the face of those odds, there is gratification in being a game official.

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&uot;You have to like officiating,&uot; said Merriel McCelleis, who has over 30 years experience as a high school umpire. &uot;Some people go fishing as a hobby, and officiating is a hobby. I have satisfaction knowing what I did allowed the kids to perform at their best and the coaches to perform at their best.&uot;

McCelleis is darned good at not letting people criticize him, and he and three other Natchez-based officials were awarded recently for their work during the 2002-03 athletic year. McCelleis, Wilbert Whittley, Gerald Lucas and the late Michael Blanton were named Officials of the Year by the Mississippi High School Activities Association for the Southwest District.

&uot;It takes a while,&uot; said Lucas, who was honored in football in his 14th year of officiating. &uot;If you’re not really strong-minded, it’ll get to you. You have to keep your mind on what you’re doing and block it out. I’ll put it like this &045; I’m still working on it. If you throw a flag or something the coach doesn’t think so, he’ll get in your ear for a little while.&uot;

The four officials were honored for blocking out the criticism, making the right calls and always being objective under all circumstances. The awards were the result of nominations of their peers and a special committee, and selection was based on the each official’s outstanding performance on the field along with his or her contributions to the state and local associations.

Other criteria were coach-official relationships and work with schools, players and communities to promote the game.

&uot;I was doing it while I was coaching on the varsity level and Natchez High,&uot; said Whittley, who left NHS in 2001 to be assistant recreation director for the city of Natchez. &uot;And we were at that point going to the state championship and the Big House almost every year. The ultimate call is to go to the Big House. I’ve been in the association 13 years, and after nine years I stepped out on that floor.

&uot;But beyond the championship games, the biggest deal is to be recognized by coaches, our peers and the state association. To me, that’s just like coaching a state championship game.&uot;

McCelleis may be the dean of officials since he has 34 years in baseball, 30 years in basketball, 15 years of softball and 33 years of football. Yet if you ask anyone about him, they might just refer to him as the baseball ump with the animated call for a third strike.

When he’s behind the plate and the batter looks at a third strike, there’s no mistaking the call when he pumps his right arm across his body.

&uot;You have to realize one of the biggest problems in officiating is the failure to communicate,&uot; McCelleis said. &uot;Fans and coaches have to know what you’re doing out there. Our communication is the reason we have any problems. When coaches, players and fans know what you’re doing, communication is the key.&uot;

Blanton, meanwhile, had no problems in that regard as he spent several years officiating softball before he died of a heart attack in January. He often called games for Natchez High and Cathedral.

&uot;He was very enthusiastic about slow-pitch softball,&uot; McCelleis said. &uot;That was his game &045; rain or shine.&uot;