- Associated Press - Friday, February 19, 2016

GRANGER, Ind. (AP) - Surviving in a “man’s world” of basketball officiating can be a challenge for a young female.

Amanda Bender recognizes the pressure, even if it’s not there overtly. Down deep, the 35-year-old native of Cassopolis, Michigan, who now lives in Granger and works part time in retail, feels she has to work harder, be sharper and act tougher than her male counterparts to establish herself.

So, that’s what she does.

“You just don’t see that many female officials, especially in Indiana (high school basketball),” Bender said. “It’s hard to get (basketball) games - boys or girls - in Indiana.

“It’s not just a man’s world, but . it still kinda is.”

Maybe it’s the system. Maybe there’s a stigma.

“I really can’t pin down why it’s hard to get games in Indiana,” Bender said. “Maybe athletic directors haven’t seen me work a lot.”

This year, Bender was scheduled to work three boys games in Indiana - at South Bend St. Joseph, Argos and Portage. She had to give two of those up because of college commitments.

In Michigan, she gets games on a much more regular basis. She belongs to the Fruit Belt Officials Association, which has an assigner that matches crews with games - boys and girls. In Indiana, Bender is a member of the St. Joseph Valley Athletic Officials Association, which doesn’t have an assigner. Athletic directors go directly to the officials.

“I was one of the people who recruited her,” said Bryan Wild, who has been officiating high school football and basketball at area schools in Indiana and Michigan for 23 years. “It’s refreshing to have a female official. We always need more of them.

“There are some male coaches who might have a different take on it. I remember one school hired our crew. The athletic director asked who else was working. I said, ‘Larry Brewer and Amanda Bender.’ The AD said, ‘Well, you know this is a boys game, right?’

“She’s got a demeanor about her. You’re not going to mess with Amanda. She’s fair, impartial and consistent.

“She’s more confident about herself than she was five years ago. She’s gone to a lot of camps because she wants to move up the ladder. She takes constructive criticism a lot better now.”

But that doesn’t mean she’s deaf to what’s said in the stands while she works.

“Fans are the most difficult to deal with,” Bender said. “I run into situations where people are yelling at me just because I’m a female. That hurts my soul. I hear what they’re saying. Kids sitting around them are hearing what they’re saying. That’s going to discourage those girls from even considering doing something like this.”

Bender played basketball and softball at Cassopolis High School. Not good enough to play either on the college level, she went to Grand Valley State University and majored in physical education. She earned her master’s in sports administration at Louisville.

An internship with the director of facilities at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Daytona Beach, Fla.) - who was also an SEC basketball official - was a life-changer. An unofficial part of the deal was that Bender become involved with officiating.

Once the internship was over, she latched on at nearby Daytona State College. Bender began officiating volleyball in 2006 and basketball in 2008.

“I love the game and I hate working out,” Bender said. “(Officiating) is a way for me to stay in shape.

“This is my own drug. Officiating is what makes me happy. And, yeah, the extra money is great.”

After five years in Florida, she came back to the area. Bender attended camps and clinics, and worked AAU summer games in order to develop her skills, be seen by assigners for junior college, NAIA, and NCAA Division III conferences, and also to get her name out there for high school athletic directors.

Getting hired can be as tough as working a game.

“It’s important to go to camps for the networking, and also getting my skills refreshed,” Bender said. “I want to move up (to Division I women’s games). It’s important to be seen and to get to know people.

“I also don’t mind working (high school) junior varsity games (except for the pay). You work with newer officials. It helps you remember the fundamentals you worked on so hard.”

Bender is in the process of paying her dues. The past couple years, from the start of January to the end of February, she officiates at least five nights a week, sharing time between college and high school games.

Last year, she said she made between $10,000 and $12,000 from officiating.

“(Last year) I reached a point where I hated basketball,” Bender said. “Those are the times when you question why you’re doing it. Long travel. Late nights. Sometimes bad games.

“Then, after a break, I’m back doing AAU games again and loving it.”

It’s an unusual, but hardly unique, situation when a female official is working a girls high school basketball game. It’s quite rare, though, for a female to work a boys game.

“She won’t let a coach rile her,” said South Bend St. Joseph athletic director Eric Gohlke. “She won’t be intimidated. No matter what the situation is, she doesn’t get flustered. Whether it’s boys or girls, she’s just a good official.”

Gohlke thought enough of Bender that he made sure to hire her for the recent showdown between the Penn and St. Joe girls, which featured two of the top teams in the state. She handled the spotlight with ease.

“(High school) student sections might watch her closely to see if she can do it,” Wild said with a laugh. “That takes the pressure off Larry and me. All it takes is about a quarter for her to prove herself.”

“You have to have a thick skin,” Bender said. “You can’t take anything said or done personally. It’s not an easy world, but you can reap the benefits.”

Not the least of which is the satisfaction of finding a niche in a “man’s world.”

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Source: South Bend Tribune, https://bit.ly/1PIZCzu

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com

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