A game official walks into a gym and draws cheers from athletes.
No, really. “The Sisters” hear it often.
Siblings Michelle Schneider and Jacki Wincek are rare female officials working Minnesota high school adapted soccer, floor hockey and softball games. They bring a deep knowledge of the rule book while encouraging and educating athletes during games.
“I do it for the kids, and I take pride in my job,” said Wincek, 50, who began officiating adapted sports when state tournaments began in 1994. “I’ve had kids cheer when I walk in because they know they’re going to get a good game. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
Wincek and Schneider, 47, who followed her sister into officiating, are among the most tenured sports officials in adapted athletics, which include cognitively and physically impaired divisions. They have become a staple at the adapted softball state tournament, held Friday and Saturday at Coon Rapids High School.
“I prefer working with special education kids,” Schneider said. “It’s more rewarding because the kids appreciate you more.”
Schneider recalled a Mounds View floor hockey player in the CI Division who stood in one spot near the middle of the floor during a game and did not move.
“A puck hit her stick, and she got this smile from ear to ear,” Schneider said. “She even did a fist pump. That’s what we’re here for.”
Officiating is a family affair. Longtime high school official Darrell “Bozo” Wincek passed on his passion to his daughters, both former athletes at Cooper High School in New Hope. Jacki Wincek is licensed in adapted physical education.
Schneider, the taller brunette, works as a substitute teacher in the Fridley and Robbinsdale school districts. Wincek, the short blonde — the “older, wiser one” she joked — teaches physical education at Minneapolis Roosevelt and coaches softball at Henry.
They mix teaching into their officiating, reminding an adapted softball player, for example, when to apply a tag instead of stepping on a base for a force out.
They also know the sting of making unpopular decisions. One father still complains to Schneider about a call she made seven or eight years ago. And being a female official was not always easy. The sisters can identify with adapted athletes fighting for respect.
A male coach, Wincek said, complained about calls and questioned their competence until Schneider “shot him a look” and he sat down. He later apologized and “now complains he doesn’t get us working enough of his games,” Wincek said.
Marcus Onsum, coach of six-time defending state champion Robbinsdale/Hopkins/Mound-Westonka’s PI Division softball team, said Schneider and Wincek “love seeing the kids succeed and often can be heard encouraging and complimenting the kids on their play during and after games.”
The sisters give their best because doing so reflects the passion and pride the athletes display, attributes no walker, wheelchair, leg brace or mental challenge can mute. Watching the athletes persevere, both sisters said, touches their hearts.
“I look at these kids knowing what they battle through,” Schneider said, her voice cracking. “I’ve been out there trying to hold it in. Sometimes a senior will say, ‘Michelle, I’m going to miss you,’ and I have to turn away.”
Said Wincek: “I still choke up. You see them as seventh- and eighth-graders until they are seniors. You see the amazing things they can do, the challenges they overcome. Their passion is so real. The able-bodied athletes have passion, too, but it’s just different.”