Sue Blauch was preparing for her 20th season as a referee in the WNBA when she was approached about making a transition in the sport to administration in the spring of 2018.
The former Eastern Mennonite High School and Eastern Mennonite University basketball player was asked by Monty McCutchen, head of referee training and development for the WNBA, and another staff member if she wanted to take on the role as head of referee performance and development as a senior director.
“My immediate reaction was, ‘No thanks,’ I said this is my 20th season, and while it didn’t mean anything monetarily to be in my 20th season, it meant a lot to me personally at that point,” Blauch recalled. “So my initial response was no. Then we revisited it a week or two later and then the conversation started going.”
Blauch eventually decided to take on the new position. She officiated her last WNBA game in July of 2018 in Indianapolis and her wife, Karen, and a friend in officiating made the trip for the special occasion.
Then, in August of 2018, Blauch began her new job with the WNBA.
“When someone has confidence in you to do something greater at the time you really ought to think about it and explore it,” Blauch told the News-Record. “It has actually gone smoother and has been less stressful than I thought it would from a personal standpoint.”
“I have found at times I miss the court. But for the most part I just really love what I am doing. It has been a great opportunity and a rewarding opportunity. Looking back in hindsight, I am very happy I made this decision,” adds Blauch, who splits her time between Harrisonburg and Florida.
Now, she oversees some of her former referee colleagues while also serving as a mentor of sorts to younger officials.
“When you think about serving a group of people you have been part of for a very long time ... it is helping me develop, grow, improve, it is just very rewarding,” Blauch said.
The first full season Blauch worked in her new job was the 2019 campaign.
Then came the pandemic in March and the WNBA played its 2020 season in a bubble in Florida due to COVID-19 concerns.
“Hopefully it was an anomaly; no one would ever want to do it again,” she said of 2020. “I was there for the duration, six days a week or seven days a week. Three or four nights I stayed at the hotel and watched the games on TV. It was an immersion.”
Blauch said she and officials watched tapes of about 150 plays from the past season and she will talk to referees after games to give them feedback. She makes several trips a year to the WNBA/NBA headquarters in New Jersey to keep in touch with her colleagues, but has been able to do a lot of work remotely in the past year.
After graduating from EMU in 1986 (the Royals were 40-12 her last two seasons under coach Sandy Brownscombe), Blauch began calling high school basketball games about three years later.
The first college games she did was during the 1990-91 season in the Division III Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC), of which Bridgewater and EMU are members. Her first Division I games came in the Colonial Athletic Association, which includes JMU, and the Big South Conference in 1991-92.
As a referee, she worked a Final Four in the NCAA women's Division I tournament, a championship finals in the WNBA, the Big Ten Conference tournament, and the CAA tourney several times, including games in Harrisonburg with the Dukes.
Among her several foreign assignments: the youth Olympics in Moscow in 1998, the world championships in Brazil in 2006, and the Olympics in China two years later.
One of her first mentors was Vickie VanKleek, now the women's basketball officials supervisor for the Forest-based ODAC.
“When I first started doing high school, she was doing ODAC games,” Blauch said. “I went down to the ODAC tournament one year. She was a mentor; she really encouraged me and did what she could to help.”
Another mentor was George Toliver, a former basketball standout at JMU and a long-time referee in the NBA. "He did some of my games when I played at EMU," Blauch noted.
Toliver also saw Blauch work games at the Ralph Sampson camp at EMU at a time Toliver was running a camp for officials at JMU. Toliver still works for the NBA in training a pipeline of officials.
"I called her over and told her who I was. I told her I would help her and she took me up on that," Toliver, who now lives in South Carolina, said Monday. "The rest is kind of history. Sue was an outstanding student of the game. She has a great ability to implement what she is taught. She sort of got the bug for it. She certainly had a great career in the WNBA. She has transitioned into a tremendous leader in the WNBA. I am very happy for Sue."
Blauch is one of several Harrisonburg ties to the WNBA.
Former Blue Streaks' star Kristi Toliver, the daughter of George, led Maryland to the national title in 2006 and has played pro ball since then. She helped Washington to the WNBA title in 2019 before signing as a free agent with Los Angeles. Toliver did not play in 2020 due to concerns over the pandemic; she is a former Washington NBA assistant coach and very involved in social issues.
Former JMU players to appear in the WNBA the past two seasons include Kamiah Smalls, Jazmon Gwathmey and Tamera Young, a first-round pick of Atlanta out of JMU in 2008 who last played in the WNBA in 2019 for Las Vegas.
Blauch worked some games involving Young in the past. They were chatting informally before a game years ago when Blauch noted they both had Harrisonburg connections - Blauch then pointed out to her the flavor of the week for Kline's Diary Bar.
Later on, Blauch had to give Young a technical during an WNBA game. Later in the first half, Blauch asked Young why she had gone off. "You didn't tell me the flavor," Young joked to Blauch.
So at halftime, Blauch checked the flavor of the week at Kline's and reported back to Young during the second half.
Those incidents help soften what can be a demanding profession. "The average fan doesn't see what all goes into officiating before and after the game. They just think we show up and referee," said Blauch, who grew up in Short Gap, West Virginia before coming to Harrisonburg for high school.
The WNBA is now partners with the NBA and the G League, the top domestic minor-league for men's hoops.
"In our three leagues, we need to have one brand of officiating," McCutchen told ESPN in 2018 of the Blauch hiring. "We wanted the administration of that to show that our money was where our mouth was. If we were going to say they were all equal, we needed the resources and people in place that equitized all three leagues. And that we have a supervisor of officials for each league."
Blauch has worked in a female-dominated league for more than 20 years. But she has been encouraged by the gains by women in other pro sports: there was a woman assistant and strength coach for Tampa Bay as the Bucs won the Super Bowl on Sunday, and a game official was a woman; Kim Ng is the new general manager of the Miami Marlins of Major League Baseball; and there have been women who have officiated games in the NBA.
"All of the groundwork that was laid by so many people for decades has helped these moments come," Blauch said. "The thing I am struck by is there is now a better understanding, the skills that are required to officiate a sport don't include gender."
"Officiating transcends gender," she added. "It is really great to see a person looked at by skill set. I think we are just going to see more of it. None of this is a gimmick. There is no gimmick in the NFL, there is no gimmick in the NBA to having women officials. Gender isn't a criteria. We are just looking what it takes to be an official or referee at that level and evaluating the skill set. That is what is really empowering and I think we are going to see more of it."