Williams selected for 2020 Final Four
Local teacher, coach earns special honor
Tona Williams has been involved in sports for as long as she can remember. As a former athlete, coach and official, Williams has always had a hand in athletics.
In February, the Mifflin County High School English teacher and college basketball official got to cross a dream off the list, as she was selected to officiate the Division III Women’s Basketball Final Four in Columbus after decades as a referee.
Although the dream didn’t completely come to fruition — the NCAA Tournament was canceled in March due to COVID-19 — just being selected was special.
“It’s pretty exciting. It’s something that I thought about for a very long time and I’ve been working toward for literally 20 years,” Williams said. “I’ve done NCAA playoffs for a long time. Your name gets evaluated by coaches and observers who are in the stands from the NCAA and you get scored and all of that and I had done well. I had gone up to the Elite Eight before, so I’ve gotten as far as you possible could without getting to the Final Four.”
Just being recommended is quite the accomplishment, but being selected is one of the sports top honors.
“A lot of people get their names put through and recommended on the belief that you could do a good job during the Final Four and I had known before that my name had been presented, but I had never been selected before,” Williams said. “So, this was absolutely a dream come true.”
Williams attended Bucknell University on a track and field scholarship, but her love for basketball lingered. Looking to get back into the sport, she decided to pick up a whistle.
“When I was [at Bucknell] I enjoyed track and field a lot, but I missed basketball and wanted to play or do something,” Williams said. “Because I was involved with track, I couldn’t play basketball, so I decided to officiate it. I went and took the test and that’s how I got started. I just missed it, even though I was involved in a Division I athletic program in track, which was great. I just missed playing basketball.”
Williams climbed the ranks as a PIAA official before becoming a Division III women’s basketball official. Williams has policed the end lines at PIAA tournament games and has been a part of multiple PIAA state title games. She has even served as an evaluator for the PIAA’s officials at the state finals.
Williams began officiating in 1986, hoping to see how far her secondary profession could take her.
“I’ve officiated 34 years and I’ve been doing college since the early 90s,” Williams said. “When I did some state championships in the PIAA, I would say starting in the Mid-90s, I put it as a goal to get as far as I could at the college level. It’s been a good 20-25 years of working, getting better, going to camps and just trying to do the best job possible and hope somebody notices.
In the moment, Williams said she doesn’t really feel nerves anymore, but explained the feeling as a pressure to be perfect.
“It takes a conscious effort to constantly pay attention and not let your mind wander to be on top of your game at all times, because as soon as you kind of relax, that’s when you miss something, or that’s when something happens,” Williams said. “I can tell you that doesn’t change the feeling that I always want to be perfect and I don’t want to miss anything. I don’t want to ever not be in position or that kind of thing. That doesn’t mean I don’t make a mistake because everyone makes mistakes, but it’s that feeling of not wanting to let someone down.”
Hecklers don’t phase her much either.
“A lot of the fans don’t know the rules or this or that, so I don’t put much stock in what the fans have to say, but as a referee, I don’t want to let the athletes down in any way,” Williams said.
“I feel, like there is definitely a pressure to do as well as I can every time I step onto the court.”
Time management is crucial for Williams, who officiates three or four games a week, traveling all over the state while teaching full-time and serving as an assistant coach.
“Basically from November until the end of March I eat, sleep and go to work, and after I go to work, I go to basketball, whether it is the high school gym or the college gym and that’s every day all day,” Williams said. “It’s a pretty hectic schedule and it slows down a little bit at the end of February because when playoffs start you are only refereeing at most, twice a week, which isn’t nearly as much. From November through the middle of February it is a very hectic schedule. Having a full-time job too is a lot obviously.”
Her time as an official has benefited Williams in her coaching career as an assistant for the Mifflin County High School boys’ basketball team. Her knowledge of the game and ability to understand calls from an officials’ standpoint can often lead to teachable moments.
Often times, Williams can be seen on the bench next to a player that has just came off the court after a tough call, offering perspective and teaching players to keep playing hard, no matter the call.
“Being a coach is a lot like being a teacher, so that aspect isn’t a big leap as far as how you interact with some kids or athletes or so on,” Williams said. “It’s super difficult to be a coach and an official at the same time. You’re sitting on the bench and everything is being evaluated in my head. I’m sitting there and I evaluate everything, but I think that it gives me a pretty good perspective to teach our athletes.
“I can look at them and be like, no that was a good call, or nope, you’re right, that was a terrible call, but just move on. They can look at me and they know that I will tell them the truth. If it was a good call or a bad call, it doesn’t really matter, we just have to move on. I think that that perspective can help them and it’s good to have.”
Basketball has become a family event for Williams, who gets to share her coaching experience with her son CJ Gill, who is a member of the basketball team. Along with her husband, Williams also works with her other son, Tucker, with baseball in the spring.
“I was asked to be part of the program and before I said yes, I asked CJ if it would be OK with him and it was,” Williams said. “All of the kids that are in the program knew me before I was their basketball coach in some way or form. They certainly know that there is no way he would get any kind of special treatment, in fact, I’m probably harder on him than I am most.
“It is special because we get to spend a lot of time in the gym together in the winter. In the spring, my younger son, spends almost every day on the baseball diamond. Spending that time with them on the athletic field and having been an athlete myself is pretty special. My husband and I would help them in their coaching and training and such.”
Williams is especially grateful for her support system that allows her to be heavily involved in the sport of basketball.
“I’m extremely grateful, especially for my family because I am completely gone from November until the end of March,” Williams said. “They are very supportive, and it would have been fantastic to be able to share this experience with them. I’m still very proud of being selected even though I didn’t get to step on the court and do it. The good news is I didn’t miss a call, and nobody yelled at me.”
While disappointed, Williams is proud of being selected. Williams said that she hasn’t heard anything that would allow officials selected this season to referee the championships next year, so her name would have to be selected again.
“This was a lot of years in the making and it was incredibly disappointing not to do it,” Williams said. “Obviously there are bigger issues at hand and I’m just one of hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t get to fulfill their dream, but at least I know that it was possible and everything I did to work toward it was worth it. Who knows, maybe next year I will get to blow my whistle and do it.”