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Calling March Madness

Growing up in Devils Lake, Rob Kueneman was a multisport athlete. He followed the NCAA basketball tournament and hoped to someday play in it. But Kueneman, a 5-foot-7 guard, averaged only 4 points on the Devils Lake High School junior varsity bas...

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Growing up in Devils Lake, Rob Kueneman was a multisport athlete. He followed the NCAA basketball tournament and hoped to someday play in it.

But Kueneman, a 5-foot-7 guard, averaged only 4 points on the Devils Lake High School junior varsity basketball team as a junior. A football injury ended his senior basketball season before it started. And, by that time, reality had set in.

"It's something everybody dreams of, playing in March Madness,'' said Kueneman, a 1991 Devils Lake High School graduate. "They (dreams) probably died between my junior and senior years in high school. Basketball was probably the worst of my three sports. I was a marginal athlete.''

But Kueneman made it to March Madness this year.

The 45-year-old Devils Lake native, who now lives in Fargo, was one of approximately 100 referees from across the country selected to officiate in the NCAA tournament. Kueneman was at Dayton, Ohio, working the First Four game between Texas Southern and North Carolina Central.

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Five days before the tournament, Kueneman received a call from a national coordinator saying hour been chosen.

"I was very humbled,'' Kueneman said. "To be honest, it was quite emotional for me. It just hits you-you've worked so hard to get to what seemed to be an unattainable goal back when I started reffing. For a day or two you're thinking, 'Wow. I made it.' But on Tuesday you fly out with a job to do.

"I was a little bit nervous (before the game). I've reffed in front of big crowds before. But this is a bigger stage. But I've prepared for it. Once the ball goes up, it's another game. All you think about is what's going on on the court. You can't get caught up in everything going on around you.''

Kueneman made it to college basketball's big show 26 years after he started his career as a basketball official. He started reffing as a college freshman, in part to make some money and also to stay a part of the game.

Officiating became almost a year-round activity. Kueneman was a baseball umpire for many years, officiating as high as the old Prairie League professional league. He was a football referee for about 20 years.

"But I seemed to find my niche in basketball. It seemed to fit me,'' he said.

"I definitely didn't see me doing it this big, though. It just took off. I reffed my first region high school basketball tournament when I was 20, before I was old enough to go into a bar and buy a drink.''

By the 1996-97 season, Kueneman was officiating basketball games at the junior college level. In 2000, he was hired as a referee in the old North Central Conference.

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Now he's in his eighth season at the Division I level. He officiated in seven DI conferences this winter, primarily in the Big 10, working about 65 regular-season games plus three conference postseason tournaments.

"I'm not home very often,'' Kueneman said. "You have to have a good support staff. My wife, Kamie, was my high school sweetheart. She's very understanding of my schedule. My family has to sacrifice for what I do. It's a career, a job.''

Kueneman was selected from the nation-wide officiating pool. He said conferences submit a list of potential tournament officials to the NCAA. Four region supervisors evaluate officials all season and make the selections.

Kueneman has some keepsakes from the experience. He said he'll keep the NCAA tournament credentials he received, and will probably frame his referee's shirt with an NCAA patch on it.

"It still seems kind of surreal,'' Kueneman said. "In my wildest dreams, when I was out in small Class B gyms, sometimes dressing in a janitor's closet, I never expected to get a chance like this. It's crazy when you think about it.''

Mar 14, 2018; Dayton, OH, USA; Texas Southern Tigers guard Demontrae Jefferson (3) shoots in the first half against the North Carolina Central Eagles during the First Four of the 2018 NCAA Tournament at Dayton Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 14, 2018; Dayton, OH, USA; Texas Southern Tigers guard Demontrae Jefferson (3) shoots in the first half against the North Carolina Central Eagles during the First Four of the 2018 NCAA Tournament at Dayton Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Related Topics: BASKETBALLDEVILS LAKE
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