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 South Dakota Tennis Umpires, with leaders Darrell Gomarko and Gene Heller

The South Dakota Tennis Umpires group, with past and current leadership from Gene Heller and Darrell Gomarko, is being recognized with the 2006 SD Tennis Achievement Award. For Heller, Gomarko and their recruited umpires, it is more than just making the right call. Their leadership and efforts have brought professionalism and decorum to tennis tournaments.

 In 1958, a young man from Philadelphia became interested in being a tennis umpire. He was not formally trained, but he knew most of the rules. Gene Heller had a passion for tennis and started to umpire. He umpired at the Merion Cricket Club in Haverford, PA whose grass court tournaments were preludes to what became the US Open.

 In 1985, Heller had moved to South Dakota, and got the bug again to umpire. He was joined by Jeff Nelson and Jane Johnson, who all became certified as tennis umpires. The instructor, Bob “Rocky” Rockwell, a past chief umpire for the US Open, came from Minneapolis to Sioux Falls to give on-site certification training. Rockwell also came back in 1987 to certify eight locals: Heller, Lloyd Stivers, Rob Lanpher, Mary Thompson, Dwight Seigenthaler, Mike Gardner, Shelly Gardner, and Darrell Gomarko.  With more officials now available, Heller chaired the finals of the 1987 Men’s Open Division of the South Dakota Adult Open. The newly certified local officials called all lines.

 Because there were so few tournaments that used officials, only core groups survived. This core group of Heller and Gomarko, with the assistance of Stivers, and later Bob Williams, kept South Dakota officiating alive. There were usually only two or three officials to handle the South Dakota Open tournaments. They would each take a set of courts in a park and be there all day. Their only rest breaks came on the final day when nearly all of the matches were at McKennan Park. The first “chair” was built by Heller, a five foot step ladder with a seat bolted to the top. “It was pretty wobbly”, Heller remembers.

 During this era, it was difficult to get trainers to come to South Dakota each year, so Heller became a trainer himself, and assumed the responsibility of certifying South Dakota officials until he retired from officiating in late 1999. In 1993, he was recognized nationally by receiving the Nicolas E. Powell Award, which was presented at the US Open. He received the award for his outstanding work as a sectional chair or line umpire contributor at the local level. Heller is the only South Dakotan whose name is found as an honoree in “Friend of Court” which contains all of the USTA rules of tennis and is the handbook of umpires across the nation.

 In the spring of 1994, tennis officiating was introduced at the high school tennis tournaments and the group ultimately saw the need to expand to meet additional requirements. Darrel Petersen became certified in 1999 and the next year Rita Kane followed. Bill Flynn, Sherwood Hatch and Jim Van Gerpen joined the group in 2001.

Since that time, the number of officials has continued to grow, with 17 being certified in 2005. They include, in addition to Heller and Gomarko: Jeff Bloomberg and John Forney of Pierre, Kayla Flynn and Sherwood Hatch of Brookings, Jerry Johnson of Madison, Vermillion’s Richard Rognstad and Bill Heaston of Harrisburg. Officials from Sioux Falls include: Cindy Huether, Bud Jones, Rita Kane, Jeff Nelson, Darrel Petersen, Richard Schager, Nancy Zawada and Lloyd Stivers.

Since Heller retired, Gomarko has been the chief of officials for the Eastern South Dakota group. In 2002, he was recognized by the Northern Tennis Officials Association, who presented him their “Grass Roots Official’s Award”, and he received their 2005 Exceptional Service Award. Under Gomarko’s leadership, a stated goal of the Eastern South Dakota officials group is to have every community with tennis activities represented by at least one USTA certified official. Brandon, Brookings, Harrisburg, Madison, Pierre, Sioux Falls, and Vermillion are currently represented in the ranks of officials.

Officials are now also being certified in the Black Hills area as the state high school tournaments have begun dividing their site locations between Sioux Falls and Rapid City.