Getting back to sports has been an ongoing process throughout the COVID-19 pandemic; not only for athletes but for officials as well.
New Hartford resident and Division I college basketball referee DJ Carstensen was set to referee a BIG 10 tournament game last March when the sports world shutdown.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” recalled Carstensen, who is in his 22nd year reffing Division I. “Once we found out, I was hoping that things would go back to normal in the fall.”
The 57-year-old Carstensen, who played basketball at Utica College then coached two years at Proctor High in Utica, had officiated 15 straight NCAA tournaments until last year. When asked if he is making his return to the big dance, he said that he doesn’t know yet.
“We don’t find out until Selection Sunday, just like the teams,” Carstensen said.
During his time at Utica College, he helped lead the Pioneers to 41 wins, 37 of which came in his final three seasons under coach Larry Costello. He scored 962 career points and played in more than 100 games for the Pioneers. He was a 74.3% free throw shooter and he pulled down 465 career rebounds.
Carstensen said that during his time as an official, he’s refereed in seven or eight leagues, but now, he’s strictly reffing in the BIG 10.
“Because of testing and the pandemic, it just made sense,” Carstensen said.
He said that there isn’t a night that a game in the BIG 10 isn’t competitive.
“The kids are just excited to play,” Carstensen said. “And you notice how hard the players play. You appreciate the opportunity to be on the court as an official.”
He said that he’s been home maybe three times since the season started.
“I get tested every day at one of the 14 schools in the conference,” Carstensen said. “I don’t want to be the cause of a school shutting down. As of now, the BIG 10 has had fewer cancellations than any other conference.”
Carstensen said that before the pandemic, he and his two partners would get the same rental car and drive to the arena together and then go grab something to eat after the game. Now, he’s going to the arena alone.
“It’s different because we’d all meet up at or by the airport, grab the rental car then go to the arena. Now it’s a more lonely situation on the road because I’m driving everywhere on my own. It’s just so everyone stays safe and healthy.”
Carstensen said reffing games with no fans is a little easier, but also presents some humorous moments.
“You hear everything,” Carstensen said. “And communication is important. It’s almost like a scrimmage, but it’s not. These kids are playing for something.”
“If there’s something to take away, it’s that this year is a different kind of year,” Carstensen continued. “You have to be flexible with the schedule changes. And because of the social distancing and everything, the court configuration is a little different. The media table and replay used to be right up against the floor. Now it’s backed up six feet. I tripped a few times. And then when there’s a loose ball, you’re used to it going right into the front row. Now you might have to chase it down because it bounces 30 feet away.”
To get into officiating, Carstensen said he needed to stay involved with the game after he was not given the job at Proctor when the three Utica schools unified.
Carstensen said he’s coached against Rome Free Academy when coach Buddy Evans was patrolling the sidelines. “We went 2-2 against one another,” Carstensen said. “Then I ended up officiating some of his games. He’s a great coach and a great personality.”