Malsam blazes a trail to IHSAA Officials Hall of Fame

Friday, March 17, 2023
(Photo By Roy Tucker) Jenni Malsam (center) is accompanied by her husband Joe and daughter Annie as she receives her IHSAA Officials Hall of Fame plaque at the boys basketball state tournament last week. Malsam, a former Kingsley-Pierson athlete, started her officiating career in 1979. She is a recognizable face at many volleyball, basketball and soccer competitions throughout northwest Iowa.

DES MOINES — Again, Jenni Malsam is the first. Malsam was the first woman to become an official for Iowa high school sports. Last weekend, the former Kingsley-Pierson athlete became the first woman to become inducted in the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s Officials Hall of Fame.

Honors such as these are no stranger to the Sioux City resident, who began as an Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union volleyball official 44 years ago and then began to work both ends of a girls/boys basketball doubleheader. She was inducted in the Iowa Girls Coaches Association Volleyball Officials Hall of Fame in 2015 and in 2002, received the National Federation Officials Association’s Distinguished National Contributor Award. Malsam began officiating at a time when women weren’t involved in calling fouls during games or matches. Now, she’s a role model and a leader for other female officials.

“When I started officiating, I didn’t think about the first woman factor,” said Malsam. “Others have said to me it was so good for young girls to see a woman official because you just didn’t see that. Being inducted into the Hall of Fame, I am the first woman basketball official in Iowa. It’s not like I was shooting for that all along. I think I had a certain amount of stick-to-it-tiveness because I have been doing it for so long.”

Malsam’s first officiating opportunity was in volleyball, a sport which she had no familiarity, in terms of the rules. Involved in softball, basketball, track and golf at K-P, volleyball hadn’t come to this high school during her time.

Her husband Joe, then the athletic director at West, was the first to approach her about a volleyball officiating opportunity as the sport was coming to Sioux City’s high schools in 1979. Steve Jansen, Sioux City’s unofficial volleyball assigner, was instrumental in her early training and for that, Malsam said she is grateful.

“In volleyball, there were scrimmages at West High,” said Malsam. “[Jansen] was there and another official named Connie Schoenberner, who was from Nebraska. Nebraska was ahead of Iowa in volleyball. She helped me. We partnered up.”

Today, Malsam is a fixture throughout Siouxland as a volleyball official, working from start to finish at Saturday high school tournaments. It has granted her state tournament work, even in championship matches.

Malsam’s basketball officiating career also featured early on-the-job training.

“I’d work one half of a sophomore or JV game with one official then the other half with another varsity official,” she said. “Both of them would give me feedback. One would work, one would watch. It was such great training because they were so good about giving me all the tips, all the little things that couldn’t come out of a book.”

This was back in the day when only two referees called fouls in a game. Among her partners was her husband for a 15-year stretch before back troubles ceased his officiating. Nowadays, three refs cover a game. George Davidson and Mark Wenz are often partners with Malsam, who likes the intuitive communication that happens during a game between the three.

“It’s helpful to the crew and the officiating of the game,” she said. “You work so many games during a year. You cover your area and you look for things in your area. You know what your partners are going to call. You just do.”

Malsam learned how to talk to coaches about mistakes she had made in a call and felt comforted when they said thanks and added their appreciation. It’s among the reasons she feels she has gained respect from coaches.

“There’s two things about officiating most people don’t think about,” she said. “What a challenge it is. It’s a huge challenge to take on officiating, no matter what sport, no matter what level. Not everybody can meet that challenge. Yet, those who meet the challenge, that’s what keeps them coming back. You get that feeling of doing a good job, calling a good game and making a difference for those athletes.”

Malsam has also been involved with officials away from the volleyball or basketball court. She had the opportunity to serve on the National Federation of Officials Association board, where she took part in various committees. In 1999, Malsam became president of the NFOA, the first woman to take this office. She kept busy with national activities, such as the Hall of Fame and Officials publication and education committees. She wrote articles for a publication called The Officials Quarterly.

Sure, the Friday night at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines was special to her as she was accompanied by her husband and her youngest daughter, Annie.

“I kind of made a joke that Joe and I were partners and Annie was with us,” she said. “I carried her, so we were the first three-person basketball official group in Iowa. And for the Hall of Fame, Annie was able to come. Annie and Joe walked beside me. I told the guy at the boys association that it is really appropriate she be beside me because I carried her for a whole season. We got a kick out of that.”

This grandmother of six, who became an IHSAA/IGHSAU soccer official in 1997, is still in excellent health and plans to take it one year at a time, as she enjoys contact with fellow refs along with interacting with coaches, athletes and fans.

Malsam was asked if she had advice for those interested in officiating.

“Learn as much as you can by working with experienced officials if you have that opportunity,” she said. “There will be times when you are frustrated and things will be said to you. Often, there will be times that seem unfair, but remember, you are out there to make it fair. If you do that job, it gets in your blood. It really does.”

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