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Wayne Cavadi | | December 17, 2020

Meet the female NBA referees who got their start as NCAA DII student-athletes

Stanford's Tara VanDerveer reflects on her career after her record-breaking 1,099th win as a head coach

Meet Lauren Holtkamp, Ashley Moyer-Gleich, Natalie Sago, and now Jenna Schroeder. Holtkamp, Moyer-Gleich, and Sago were the only three female referees that were active in the NBA for the 2018 season. The three were back in 2019 with the addition of Schroeder who became the sixth woman to make it to the NBA level in the history of the game.

All four are also former DII athletes.

Schroeder is the latest to join the NBA ranks. She was not only a graduate from Saginaw Valley State, but she was also the Cardinals leading scorer. Prior to her becoming a full-time NBA referee, we had the opportunity to speak to Holtkamp, Moyer-Gleich, and Sago at the conclusion of the 2018 season. Let's look back at how these DII student-athletes are blazing a trail for future women in the NBA. 

It starts with Lauren Holtkamp — the first to arrive of the three — making her way to the NBA in 2014. Holtkamp has always been a pioneer, a member of the first Drury women’s basketball team in 2000. By the time she left Drury, the Panthers went from a new program to the national championship game in 2004.

Holtkamp’s career ended as Molly Miller’s, then Carter, began. Miller became a Panthers legend and is the current head coach that led them to the national semifinals this season. That’s nearly 20 years of really good basketball.

“I’ll tell you as someone that was part of that origin story,” Holtkamp said, “it’s so exciting to see that sustainability and success of the program so many years later. I’m really proud of them.”

Drury basketball is the reason Holtkamp is where she is today. The Panthers held summer camps for the girls in the community, and a single decision changed the course of history.

“Of all the things we could volunteer for at this camp, I chose to referee the scrimmages,” Holtkamp recollected laughing. “I had no idea what I was doing.”

Then, there's Ashley Moyer-Gleich, a four-year student-athlete for a Millersville Marauders team that made it to the round of 16 in the DII women’s basketball championship. She then went on to become their graduate assistant coach for a few more seasons and was looking to beef up her resume a little bit before fate stepped in her way. 

“I never wanted to be a referee,” Moyer-Gleich said. “I wanted to be a coach; I think that’s the natural progression of most athletes. In Pennsylvania, where I took my [referee] test, for you to pass you have to do on court training. It was a middle school girls' inter-squad game and I fell in love with it. I never wanted to coach another game in my life.”

And of course, there's Natalie Sago. Sago, too, is a former DII athlete, also spending a couple of years at Drury. Oddly enough, where Sago shined was on the softball diamond, but she has no problem admitting basketball was always her first love. After all, she had no choice.

It’s in her blood.

Chris Nicoll | USA TODAY Sports Images Natalie Sago NBA referee.

“My father just retired after 35 years of refereeing,” Sago said. “So, my whole life, I grew up in the gym with him, going to all of his games since I was a baby.

“To be honest, at first I really didn’t want to be a referee. My dad and all his buddies were trying to convince me, but I went to all my dad’s games and everyone yelled at him. I was a big daddy’s girl, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this’. I felt like it would bother me. I have feelings, I have a heart, and these guys are ruthless yelling at my dad.”

The road to the NBA was a similar one. They started on the middle school or AAU levels, did some high school, some more DIII (Moyer-Gleich even refereed the 2017 DIII women's basketball championship game), and then lo and behold, all three found themselves back in DII: Moyer-Gleich in the PSAC and Mountain East, Sago in the GLVC, and Holtkamp in the GLVC and then Peach Belt. 

TOURNAMENT PREP: How the DII women's basketball championship works

Moyer-Gleich: “I was fortunate that when I started refereeing in the PSAC a lot of the coaches were still there and knew me. It was almost like I had instant credibility. 

“I might be biased, but women’s basketball in the PSAC, it’s a tough conference. It was hard basketball and taught me some valuable lessons. I remember my first game back in the PSAC was at West Chester, and they were a pretty big rival when I was there. I was a ball of nerves just to be there. I have such a great respect and admiration for the PSAC, and I’m so proud to be a PSAC alum. I was very fortunate to go back and referee at the conference that I gave a lot of my blood, sweat, and tears to. I hold it very near and dear to my heart.”

Holtkamp: “I remember being able to go into these [DII] institutions, not that far removed from being a student-athlete and coming in in a professional sense and not an athlete. It was a really interesting transition. But I always felt at home at the Division II schools. It helped me understand and appreciate my experiences as a student-athlete. I witnessed other student-athletes working together. It helped give me a real sense of pride in being a Division II athlete.”

A stop at the DI level, a few years on the D or G-League circuit, a summer in the WNBA, and then it happened. The dream became a reality.

Moyer-Gleich: "My first game was back in October [2018]. I refereed in Oklahoma City. I’ll never forget it; it may have been sold out. It was so many people in one arena for one preseason game. What was even cooler was about five girls from the G-League, including Natalie, all five flew down to be at my game. I could feel my heartbeat in my throat, but I could see the girls standing there cheering and waving. It was a really cool feeling to have that support from my friends.”

Sago: "My family is only three-and-a-half hours from Memphis and got to be there. My dad is so invested this, and me and my dad have that tie. He gets it. It was really neat. The coolest thing was walking out of the tunnel and looking up at my parents and brother in the stands. I couldn’t look too long; I knew I was going to get emotional.

“I didn’t even have my first whistle six minutes into the game. I called a foul on Chandler Parsons. To be honest, it was soft. I told him, ‘hey, I got to get my first one on somebody.’ He was great. They all welcomed me and said congratulations.”

Holtkamp: "Oh my gosh, I do remember what it felt like to prepare in the D-League for years, and then the WNBA, and then have this opportunity to step on the floor and know that there was so much more to learn. Just to know the culmination of all that work created that opportunity. That level of energy, I just remember of feeling a sense of deep awe.

“I can remember one of the first plays that I was like, ‘I wish I had that whistle back.’ LeBron James had a play to the basket and I was the lead. It was such a powerful, quick play, he just exploded towards me on the baseline. The speed and athleticism was this crystallized moment when I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is a whole new level.’”

HISTORY: Programs with the most DII titles 

For Sago and Moyer-Gleich in particular, the road traveled has been made more special by the fact that they've climbed the ladder and faced the same challenges together. Both started refereeing in the NBA this preseason, and both became official NBA hires on November 15, 2018.

“It’s awesome," Sago said. "We’re both females and sometimes we just have to have some girl talk. But we get to do this together and keep each other uplifted and cheer each other on.

"I hate saying this because we’re all just referees, but the biggest challenge is just letting people know you belong. We go through the same training, the same meetings, read the same rule book. You got to have tough skin and get through it. Once you show them you belong and uphold the standards, then they’re like, ‘hey, this girl knows what she’s doing.”

While Moyer-Gleich, Sago, and Holtkamp have become friends sharing the spotlight, they have also become pioneers. But don’t tell them that. Humble and modest, the three have accepted their roles, and cherish it, knowing they are role models for a whole new wave a young female student-athletes.

Moyer-Gleich: "As I was going through the journey, I didn’t think that I was doing anything that was trailblazing. But everything is on social media and ESPN and is magnified. I can see now what kind of role we serve in inspiring the next generation of women. It comes with a lot of pressure and responsibility, but for so long I loved being a part of the game basketball, it just kind of comes naturally. It makes me blush. I look in the mirror and I’m just Ashley. I understand the role I’m in, and I take on that privilege."

Holtkamp: "The pace of the season, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to sit back and take stock of the big picture. This year, I’ve been out recovering from an ACL injury and because of that, I’ve been doing work differently this year, primarily in the replay center, and I’ve been forced to take a step back. 

Noah K. Murray | USA TODAY Sports Images Lauren Holtkamp NBA referee.

“In doing that, I realize that it’s so cool to be part of this and acknowledge my full part in that, and the roles of other people making this happen: the people I’m on the court with every day, the front office, the entire league with everything they do to make this incredible thing work.”

Sago: "A lot of my friends are like, ‘you’re a pioneer’. I don’t feel like it. I still look up to Dee [Kanter] and Violet [Palmer, the first two women referees] and Lauren, and even Ashley. This past weekend I got to go to the Final Four and got to speak on an all women’s panel to the Women’s Academy girls. It was really neat.

"If I’m walking on or off the court and I see a little girl holding her hand over the railing wanting a high five, or hear a mom yell, ‘thank you for doing this for my daughter,’ it’s like, ‘wow, this is really happening.’ It’s crazy, I swear, every night I go on the floor I get the chills non-stop. It’s so fun. The people that you meet, the girls you are inspiring. It’s just awesome to say that this is our job.”

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