By Dedra Cordle
With more than three decades of head coaching experience under his belt, Herb Sharfenaker knows the importance of having a good assistant. Not only can they keep track of stats and run an efficient practice when he is otherwise occupied, but they can be a great sounding board when strategies fail and problems arise.
Believing in his track record of finding quality assistants, Sharfenaker did not question his judgment when he asked his son, Justin to help out at practice. What he could not know was that his request would set off a chain of events that would change the landscape of boys’ volleyball on the westside.
It was a little over 10 years ago when scheduling conflicts with his wife caused Sharfenaker to bring his son with him as he led volleyball practice for a group of girls. Knowing that he had to keep his then 6-year-old occupied, he told him the importance of being a good assistant by staying out of trouble.
“I thought he might be a bit of a problem,” Sharfenaker said, a special education teacher at Briggs High School, with a laugh. “He was young and easily distracted. I didn’t want him wandering onto the court and getting hit by a ball going 50 miles per hour.”
Fortunately for the Sharfenaker family, Justin kept his distance from the action but he says that was only because he was glued, figuratively, to his seat.
“I fell in love with the sport the moment I first saw it,” he said.
He was enamored with the speed of the game, by the passion the players were showing and the reaction from the crowd of spectators.
“Everyone was just so into it,” he said. “I was hooked.”
It also didn’t hurt that his older sister, Sarah was a player as well.
“She was my idol,” he said. “I wanted to be just like her.”
Throughout the years, Justin happily “tagged along” with his father to practice and helped collect errant balls and keep track of stats. Eventually, he decided to join in on the fun.
“An assistant came up to me one day and told me that Justin had a lot of raw talent,” Sharfenaker said. “He could jump really high and spike the ball really hard and just had a thirst for learning more.
“Around the age of 12, he joined a volleyball club (Vanguard) because his middle school didn’t have a team. He’s been playing ever since.”
When entering his freshman year at Briggs in 2016, the right-side hitter was discouraged to learn that the high school did not have a boys’ volleyball team. He decided that needed to change.
“What I learned that year was a lot of people had never heard of men’s volleyball,” Justin said. “They thought it was a sport only for girls. I wanted to form a boys’ team because I wanted to have people open their world up to a different sport.”
With the approval of the school, the Bruins established a boys’ volleyball team his sophomore year. More than 12 people joined, most doing so only because Justin promised they did not have to wear Spandex.
“That was one of my most successful recruiting pitches,” he joked.
Under the director of former girls’ volleyball icon Nolla Harris, the team went 3-3 in the city league and had an overall record of 6-9.
“We were a bit of a Frankenstein team our first year,” said Justin. “We didn’t do too badly but there were a lot of pieces that still needed to be pieced together.”
The following year, which saw Justin’s father taking over head coaching duties (Sharfenaker also coaches the girls’ volleyball team), they took first place in the city league.
“We almost won our district that year too,” said Justin, who racked up a slew of honors, including that of Player of the Year for the City League, District II and First Team All-State.
For his senior year, the team made it a goal to reach the state championship. They went all the way to regionals, but were defeated by St. Charles.
“It wasn’t what we had hoped, but we played our best and had a great time just being together,” he said.
Though the team may have come up short, they took first place in the City League once again, and even nabbed the top spot as the Division II District Champions. A number of teams earned city league honors (such as Quinten Johnston, Solomon Overla, Alvin Lucky, David March, Gilberto Quinonez and Brian Haag) and Justin was once again given a slew of Player of the Year awards, including that of the Division II State Player of the Year. Most recently, he was selected as a High School All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. That honor goes to only a handful of players throughout the country.
Justin said when he was first dragged to volleyball practice 12 years ago, he never would have thought this would be his trajectory; that he would start a high school team, set records and garner awards as a player and become the standard future players aspire to be.
“All I wanted to do was play and hopefully inspire others to play as well,” said the freshman at Lincoln Memorial University. “It’s wild and humbling to think I could have made some kind of impact on this sport that I love.”
In January of 2020, Justin and his Railsplitters will take on the Ohio State Buckeyes’ men’s volleyball team in Columbus. Though he won’t be able to catch a Bruins volleyball game at that time (the boys’ season starts in March), Justin said he knows they will be practicing hard to be better.
“I think there is a true passion now at our school for boys volleyball,” he said. “I think their future is going to be really bright.”