LEWISTOWN — When she started her basketball career as a young fourth grader in elementary school, former Mifflin County School District teacher Jenn Gibbons dreamed of starting for her high school team and one day being on the floor in Hershey for the state championship game.
Gibbons eventually did earn a starting spot for her high school team at Penn Cambria. In fact, she did way better than just starting — she became the school’s all-time leading girls basketball scorer in 1993 with 1,424 career points. Gibbons’ scoring standard at PCHS still stands today.
During her senior year, the Panthers registered a District 6 title and a 26-0 record before falling in the opening round of the PIAA Tournament. As it turns out, that was far from the end of her basketball story.
Though it took her nearly 30 additional years, Gibbons’ dream of being on the floor in Hershey for a title game finally came to fruition on March 25 as she joined Willie Harris and John Cihak as game officials for the PIAA girls Class 6A title game between Plymouth-Whitemarsh and Mount Lebanon.
When asked if she ever thought she would officiate a state final game, she immediately replied, “Never in a million years!”
A state final can be intimidating for coaches, players, and officials but Gibbons had a plan for dealing with the pressure.
“It’s obviously a very important game for the players, but as an official you can’t let yourself be overwhelmed by the situation,” she said. “You have to rely on your judgment and trust the skills you have developed over the many years.”
That championship game assignment was the culmination of years of dedication and hard work, and it is certainly worth a look at her journey through the years leading up to that fantastic evening at Giant Center.
The daughter of Flora and Daniel Gibbons, Jenn enrolled at Juniata College following her high school graduation. Though she initially played basketball at Juniata, she chose to end her playing career after a short time.
“Basketball was a huge commitment of time and I wanted to focus on my academics,” she said.
Focusing on her academics proved to be a prudent choice, as she earned dean’s list honors at the college and earned a degree in education.
After graduating from Juniata in 1997, she was immediately hired by the Mifflin County School District to teach science at Strodes Mills Middle School.
Gibbons started her officiating career in 1999 at the Juniata Valley YMCA in Burnham, refereeing tournaments and league games and used the officiating as a means to stay involved with the game she loved for many years.
In 2000, something happened that changed her life journey. Gibbons met Lewistown native Neil Renaldi and the two began dating. The couple was married in Altoona in 2001, and Jenn Gibbons became Jenn Renaldi. Jenn and Neil started their life together in the Harrisburg area.
Neil was a perfect match for Jenn, as the two shared a lot of interests. Neil was a former star high school basketball player at Lewistown, and he was the first assistant girls coach for the Lewistown girls team from 1984-1991. That time span included the Panthers’ first two Mountain League titles.
After arriving in a new area, Jenn was hired to teach Life Science at Susquehanna Township Middle School. She continues in that teaching role today.
The couple has two children who are quite involved in athletics. Son Andrew was born in 2003 and is a senior at Central Dauphin High School. He just completed his final season as the starting point guard for the Rams hoop squad. Andrew also played soccer for CD. Daughter Abbey, born in 2005, is a junior this year and is a standout soccer player.
The positions of wife, parent, teacher and official suit Jenn extremely well, and she is highly respected by her officiating colleagues and area basketball coaches.
There is a shortage of officials in all sports at all levels nationwide, but despite the challenging times, Jenn is always excited to put on the whistle and hit the basketball court.
“I love it! It’s my favorite time of the year,” she said. “To be honest, sometimes it gets tough but I love the challenge. I love being around the game.”
Some may wonder why she would become an official.
“It’s enjoyable seeing how the kids grow and develop as players through the years,” she remarked. “I officiate a lot of them in CYO/AAU/middle school ball right up through high school. Every year they come back stronger, more skilled, and smarter about the decisions they make on the court. If you work hard for something and don’t give up you see results! These are skills that will be with them for life.”
As for officiating at the collegiate level, Jenn indicated that she would have pursued that option when she was younger, but when you have children of your own and they start playing sports and being involved in their own activities that takes up a great deal of time.
“I didn’t want to miss any of that (her kids’ activities). It goes by way too fast. Right now, if would be difficult for me to start at the bottom of the college ranks and work my way up. I am very happy at the high school level, though.”
Everyone at the high school level seems happy with Jenn, as well, and many in Mifflin County see her as “one of us” and take pride of her for her accomplishments on and off the court.