On the afternoon of March 8, 2002, an electrifying freshman guard walked onto the court in the University of Wisconsin Field House at Madison and started to turn heads. Just as she had been doing all season.
It was the semifinals of the WIAA Division 2 State Girls Basketball Tournament and Krystal Ellis was quite ready for prime time. The St. Catherine’s playmaker put up 14 points, four assists, four steals and a block in the Angels’ 67-52 victory over Two Rivers.
It was just the start for Ellis, who could make a strong case for being one of the top five female basketball players in the history of Racine County. She would go on to become the leading career scorer for both St. Catherine’s and Marquette University, played professionally after college for four seasons and is a member of the Marquette “M Club” Hall of Fame.
Everyone noticed Krystal Ellis in a basketball uniform.
Seventeen years to the day after that afternoon in Madison, Ellis was back at a state tournament. This time it was at the Resch Center in Green Bay and she was not that same 14-year-old freshman wearing her No. 20 St. Catherine’s jersey. Instead, she was a 31-year-old economic support specialist for Racine County and she was attired in a black-and-white official’s jersey.
Absolutely nobody noticed Ellis that afternoon as she officiated a Division 2 girls semifinal between Beaver Dam and Hortonville. And that was the highest compliment she could receive.
It’s been said that the best referees are the ones you never notice and that was the case as Ellis worked a high-level game with no incidents to speak of with officiating partners Dean Nemar and Duane Rolkosky.
“I was very excited and nervous, of course,” said Ellis, who earned first-team Associated Press All-State honors three years at St. Catherine’s. “I got really nervous when I got to the national anthem.”
But then Ellis went out and did her job so well, just as she she did as a player all those years for St. Catherine’s and Marquette.
As eventual Division 2 champion Beaver Dam rolled to a 68-48 victory over Hortonville, Ellis quickly settled in. As a new official at this level, she was likely scrutinized more by the two coaches, but Ellis held her ground.
And she was tested within the first few seconds of the game when she called an illegal screen on Hortonville.
“It was very tough,” she said. “I was nervous. It was a different atmosphere for me. It was my first state game, so I was very nervous. But I was comfortable. I felt comfortable and nervous at the same time.”
Ellis made her call in the heat of the moment, got it right and moved on. That’s how the finest officials handle their business on this stage.
And Ellis already is among the finest, based on that tournament assignment.
“Because of her background, she has instant credibility,” said Bill Topp, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Editor of Racine-based Referee Magazine. “Her next step was to learn officiating because former players don’t always know as much about the rules as they think they know. She’s done that in short order and was rewarded with a well-earned state tournament assignment.”
Ellis compacted a great deal into the last six years to have the position she’s earned. It started in the summer of 2013 when John Carter, whose daughter, Kayla, played AAU basketball with Ellis, floated the idea of being an official to her as they were walking out of church.
Well, why not? Ellis had never really considered being an official before, but it was an opportunity to return to basketball courts while feeding the competitive desire that made her an exceptional player. She was among the best as a player. Why not try to be among the best as an official?
When Ellis decided to go for it, she was all in.
She started with a camp with the Midwest Minority Officials Association. Then she attended Next Step Ahead to prepare to work high schools. She would also climb the ladder by being involved in the Racine Lakeshore Officials and the Wisconsin Basketball Officials Association.
“In this six years I’ve been doing it, I worked really hard,” she said. “I did everything I was told to do. I joined the organizations, I learned from my peers, I listened, I’ve been to multiple camps a year since I was an official.
“There’s a lot that officials put into it just to become one. If you want to become a great official, you have to do more than usual. So I did games I didn’t want to do. I drove to places I didn’t want to drive to just to get the experience. With the camps, I spent my money.”
She started working youth games and then worked her way up to the high school level. By her third year, Ellis was working junior college, NAIA and Division III games.
Topp sees Ellis, who was lead trainer for the Wisconsin Basketball Officials Association clinic last year, making an impact in multiple ways.
“It’s great to see someone that played at such a high level in the officiating ranks,” he said. “Too often, former players don’t think of officiating as an option to stay in the game. Seeing athletes like Krystal officiate can and will inspire others to give officiating a try.”
Also, Topp said, “Minorities and females are underrepresented in officiating. Krystal is a shining example of how opportunity, talent and effort lead to success. The sky is the limit for her.”
That’s exactly what Ellis has in mind. Her goal is to one day be dealing with the Geno Auriemmas, Muffet McGraws and Kim Mulkeys of major women’s college basketball.
“The college rules are so different,” she said. “It’s just understanding the game in a different way. I’d feel comfortable about it, but there’s still a lot to learn.”
At the rate she’s rising through the ranks, it wouldn’t be wise to bet against her.