No matter the sport, officials prefer to go unnoticed. Unfortunately for them, often times they are only noticed when they make a questionable or incorrect call.
But for anyone who regularly attends the individual wrestling state tournament in Champaign, or the dual team state tournament in Bloomington, Sterling native Don Mekeel and his sons Ryan and Chris aren’t hard to miss.
Just 2 weeks ago, Don, Ryan and Chris made IHSA history
at the 2017 Dual Team State Tournament. It was the first time a father and two sons
have worked the same state wrestling championship.
“Chris called me, and I got choked up,” Don recalled.
“We had been hoping and
waiting for it to happen. Finally it happened.”
There was an instance where controversy could have reared its head. The father and sons were scheduled to officiate the third-place match between Dixon and Cahokia. While Ryan and Chris had no issue, Don did. A Dixon alumnus and former wrestler himself for the Dukes, Don told the head official of his links and did not officiate the match.
“I told him that I didn’t want to raise any eyebrows,” Don explained. “They could lose a close one or win a close one based on critera, and I didn’t want to be in the thick of that.”
Still, the history-making trio came together to referee what they all describe as one of, if not the top moment of their officiating careers. Everything had come full circle.
“It was emotional in the fact that we were on the state floor at the individual tournament competing as wrestlers with him as our coach,” Ryan said. “Our team competed almost 15 years ago to the date of when we refereed together.
“There aren’t too many opportunities like that left. Someday I’m going to wish I could rewind and relive those moments. It was special because nobody had ever done that, and I don’t know if anyone ever will. It was the pinnacle of my officiating career.”
Ryan’s reference is to the Sterling wrestling team’s banner year of 2002. With Don in his eighth season as head coach, the Warriors went 24-3 as a team, and they claimed the school’s first dual team sectional title. Sterling advanced to the quarterfinals of the dual team state tournament that year.
“It was a great group of guys who were all willing to go really hard in practice,” Chris said. “It wasn’t just two or three guys that were good and 12 scrubs. Everybody was willing to do battle everyday. When you have that mentality, you think of everybody as your brothers.”
The two actual brothers each made it to Champaign in 2002 as individuals. Ryan made it after taking second at the Sterling Sectional as a 145-pound senior. Chris reached the semifinals at state as a 119-pound junior, finishing sixth overall. They both finished the season with 38 wins, and are both in the Sterling Athletic Hall of Fame individually, along with the 2002 Sterling team as well.
In the Mekeel house, wrestling never stopped. Ryan and Chris started as toddlers grappling in the living room on top of spread-out sleeping bags. As time passed, they matured from wrestling each other to analyzing themselves on film with their coach.
“Wrestling didn’t revolve around those two hours of practice,” Chris said. “You brought home tapes and talked about philosophy and strategy.”
After Chris’ senior season in 2003 in which the Warriors finished 25-1, Don resigned from the coaching ranks and devoted the extra time to officiating. He had been an official for 29 years previous, and wanted to stay involved with the sport.
However, it wasn’t always easy for Don to jump right into an often thankless job.
In his first year of teaching at Rock Falls High School, Don met Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association Hall of Fame official Tony Licocci. While he was reluctant at first, Don’s rewards have far outweighed his initial hesitance for officiating.
“I told him that I’d get my license, but I’m not going out there,” Don said. “It was a full year before I gave it a try. I owe him a lot because he’s passed on a lot to me, and through me to my sons.”
Once Don really sunk his teeth into officiating, he realized he was hooked. The sport has always held a special place in his heart right next to his competitive spirit.
“I liken it to being a wrestler yourself,” Don said. “You expose a lot of kids to it, and you hope 10 years later that they’re wrestling in high school. Some guys get really hooked. In a roundabout way, you’re still competing against other guys to get to the top.”
Don began to gain notoriety for his officiating skills by the IHSA thanks to his positive ratings. Officials are rated by coaches, and ratings are done over a 3-year period. Typically the highest-rated officials are the ones with the most ratings.
“You have to be well-respected and well-rated to work high-caliber tournaments,” Don said. “If you’re doing a 32-team tournament, then that’s 32 ratings. There’s a big emphasis on conflict resolution. It’s about rectifying to a coach a decision without coming off like a jerk.”
In 2008, Don retired from teaching at Sterling High School after 32 years at the school. The move freed up even more time to officiate every level of wrestling. He has officiated the NCAA Ken Kraft Midlands Tournament three times, and done plenty of Division III tournaments. Ryan has also officiated at the collegiate level, but the two decided to discontinue working NCAA events in 2016 due to the travel and time commitment.
“It is a big step,” Don said of reffing the collegiate ranks. “There’s a different set of rules that you have to work hard to differentiate and understand. The Division I guys only want the calls to go their way.”
The decision to scale back has allowed for more opportunities to officiate at the IKWF and IESA levels. Don has worked the IKWF State Finals five times. In the midst of the high school season, he fondly reminisced about a junior high tournament this past season in Erie.
“It was probably one of the most enjoyable days I’ve had in the last couple years,” Don recalled. “The coaches were more laid back. The wrestlers were more at the beginner level, so I was helping them into the right positions and not looking to penalize absolutely everything. There’s a lot of give and take.”
Don’s résumé as an official makes him one of the most decorated in IHSA history. He has worked nine dual team state tournaments and seven individual state tournaments. He served as the Coordinator of Officials at the 2012 dual tournament, and held the same title during the 2014 Individual tournament.
In 2012, Don joined his mentor, Tony Licocci, in the IWCOA Hall of Fame. A year later, Don and Ryan became the first father-son combination to work the dual team state tournament together, though they weren’t placed in the same crew. In 2014, Don was selected as the IWCOA Official of the Year, an honor he doubted would come to fruition.
“After 35 years of officiating, you kind of figure that it’s never going to happen,” Don said. “Then 2 years, later, the IHSA named me Official of the Year. It was really nice, and something I’ll always treasure.”
In 2015, Don and Ryan once again made history as a duo, this time as the first father and son to officiate the individual state tournament. Don currently serves the IWCOA as Secretary and President-Elect.
His primary focus now is on recruiting new officials. In the 14 years since he retired from coaching, Don has recruited and mentored 70 new officials as one of 10 clinicians in Illinois. Every Monday night in October, Sterling High School lets the former teacher and coach use a classroom to teach the approximately five to eight new officials every year.
“I’d like to do that for as many years as they need me,” Don said. “I’ll be around for awhile doing that.”
The IHSA was down almost 100 officials in the 2016-17 season from the previous year. That has prompted Don to start circulating flyers and registration forms at tournaments. He likes to meet with interested refs in September to see if they want to attend his class. If a potential official lives too far away, Don will e-mail them and hook them up with a mentor so they can register and begin their careers.
Among his recent protégés are a pair of state champions. Fulton’s Tyler Fleetwood and Morrison’s Joe Eads started officiating IKWF tournaments on weekends. And Newman’s Cael Sanders has worked for 2 years as an official in the area.
“I have enough connections that I can send them to do these little kid tournaments on Sundays, and they make an easier $150 to $180,” Don said. “It’s good money for them, and a good way to get them hooked. I think we’ll get some good young officials out of it.”
Don’s impact is evident around the Sauk Valley. Sterling has the most registered IKWF officials in Illinois, and the second-most registered IHSA officials in the state behind Chicago. He’d like to see areas like Rockford and the Quad Cities boost their numbers to help the state as a whole.
“I think the future is bright in our area, but other guys need to step the recruiting up around the state,” Don said. “We’re still short-handed. We probably need another 250 guys in Illinois to satisfy the need.”
Don himself will soon need to be replaced as an official. He expects to be on the mat for 2 more years, hoping that the state will again let him and his sons make history.
“I think I’m on the way out as far as officiating. I’d like to see one more thing happen, and that’s to officiate the individual state tournament with my sons.”
When Don decides to retire the stripes, he knows he’ll have two successful sons to continue the family sport. Both Ryan and Chris started officiating little tyke tournaments when they were in junior high, and both got their IHSA licenses at age 17.
“It’s hard to believe they had a good understanding of the rules at that age, but they were good officials,” Don said.
“I had no aspirations of being a state official,” Chris said. “I got better, and my senior year of college I was doing more meets. Once I graduated, I moved to Chicago where there are more opportunities. It just snowballed from there. I didn’t even know I was a good official until I started working varsity tournaments in Chicago and other referees were telling me I was great and natural at it.”
Ryan and Chris are in the top level of IHSA officiating in addition to demanding day jobs. Ryan is the special education teacher at Canty Elementary in Chicago, and is a volunteer wrestling coach at Theodore Roosevelt High School. Chris works at a law firm as a quality assurance analyst in downtown Chicago.
They are also constantly being tested in the competition they officiate. Ryan and Chris regularly see state powers like Montini, Oak Park-River Forest, Lockport, and the Lincoln-Way schools.
“Their ratings are in the top 90th percentile in the state,” Don said. “They are constantly tested among national-caliber competition. That’s where they’ve earned their respect.”
Chris says that there are some nerves officiating some of the biggest schools in the state. However, he looks forward to the challenge more than getting all caught up in the state rankings like most officials.
“During the day when I’m going to do a big meet, I’ll get a little nervous,” Chris said. “For me, it’s a chance to showcase my talent. I’m just out there to make the best call. I don’t personally get into the rankings.”
Ryan puts pressure on himself to be at his best on some of the biggest stages in Illinois. He added that the sport is vital to keeping Chicago’s rampant violence out of the schools.
“I think inside the city, it’s a little more relaxed,” Ryan said. “It’s about keeping kids off the streets. It’s just as intense as in the rural areas. They live and breathe it. You owe it to them to go to clinics and be on your ‘A’ game as much as you can.”
The brothers share their dad’s dream of officiating with him at the individual state tournament. As Don’s career on the mat enters its twilight years, he reflects on what kind of legacy he will leave behind.
“I think I’ve made a contribution to the sport,” Don said. “I wasn’t particularly talented, but this is a sport where if you work hard and bounce back after a couple setbacks, you can be successful. Maybe they weren’t a state qualifier in high school, but they can become a state official if they work hard enough at it.”