'Sky the limit' for young volleyballer Sharone Vernon-Evans
18-year-old Torontonian adjusts to new position, physical play in FIVB World League
A rising star in Canadian volleyball, Sharone Vernon-Evans has shown a competitive desire and sheer determination since childhood.
"I was playing basketball and I remember I got a net and my dad dunked on me. I'm like, 'I'm never going to let him dunk on me again,'" Vernon-Evans recalled over the phone this week. "I started to jump and wanted to touch the rim. I just kept jumping, jumping and jumping until I got there and that was in Grade 7."
Vernon-Evans' vertical abilities were also tested against tall tree branches and street signs. After his school basketball team folded when he was 12, he picked up volleyball, a passion of his older sisters Theanna and Kadeisha.
While attending one of Theanna's practices at Ryerson University in his native Toronto, a 15-year-old Vernon-Evans caught the eye of Rams head coach Dustin Reid, who wanted the six-foot-seven, 155-pound teenager to use his Vertec vertical jump apparatus.
"I touched 11 [feet] nine [inches]. I wasn't sure what that meant, so I didn't take it to heart," Vernon-Evans said. "I walked away to get water but later on everyone made a big deal of it."
Fast forward three years and Vernon-Evans is a big deal himself, a rookie contributor and the youngest player on a Canadian indoor men's volleyball team currently competing in the top tier of the FIVB World League, the premier annual men's volleyball tournament.
The former star of the Ontario Volleyball Association's Mississauga Pakmen has also improved his running vertical jump after recording a spike-hit height of 3.82 metres (12 feet, 6.5 inches) — 1.4 metres clear of the official men's volleyball net height — this past April.
According to the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), the six-foot-nine Vernon-Evans — with a 2.3-metre wingspan —trails only legendary six-foot-five Cuban volleyballer and Italian professional Leonel Marshall, 37, who touched 3.83m in 2015.
With veteran opposite hitter Gavin Schmitt having retired last fall, a younger version of Canada's squad that placed fifth at the 2016 Rio Olympics entered this weekend's final phase of the preliminary round in Antwerp, Belgium with a 3-3 record.
While many aspiring 18-year-old volleyball players are playing at the university level, Vernon-Evans set his sights on playing professionally at 16, and the Agincourt Collegiate Institute graduate recently signed a two-year contract to play for Poland's ONICO Warsaw, coached by Team Canada's Stephane Antiga.
"The biggest reason was Stephane being the coach," said Vernon-Evans, who won multiple championships and national medals with Pakmen. "It's rare to play for a coach [across the world] that knows you and will help you develop as a player. He's patient with me and understands I'm still a work in progress.
"The Polish league is quite competitive and a lot of guys are big, physical and skilled."
Antiga noticed Vernon-Evans last fall at the training centre in Gatineau, Que., which focuses on preparing athletes for international-level training and competition.
A former centre, Vernon-Evans has moved to the right side as an opposite hitter this season and has already gained 10 pounds of muscle while learning how to play with and against older athletes.
"You have to take care of your body so it's ready to go the next day. It's your money-maker, your weapon," he said. "You have to make sure you stretch after games, get in bed early, eat the right things, stay hydrated."
I don't feel that one game will define me. I always believe I'll learn and get better.— Canadian national men's volleyball rookie Sharone Vernon-Evans
Vernon-Evans entered Friday's five-set victory over Belgium with eight starts in Canada's 26 sets in World League action and entered as a substitute player in 10 others. He surprised himself, scoring 52 points while adding 42 attack kills (49 per cent kill success rate), six stuff blocks and four aces.
"I have good setters that have helped give me confidence," said Vernon-Evans, a highly acclaimed beach volleyball player who teamed with Parvir Jhajj to finish fourth in the FIVB World Under-17 Beach Volleyball Championship. "I don't feel that one game will define me. I always believe I'll learn and get better.
"My footwork isn't as polished as some of my teammates, and my approach isn't as compact as most. With blocking, I've been doing a better job but I still need … to touch more balls and get [physically] stronger to sustain a level of performance for a long career."
Vernon-Evans saw more floor time a month ago while leading Canada to bronze at the U21 Pan American Cup in Fort McMurray, Alta., but Antiga, who's excited about the teenager's rapid improvement, has made a conscious decision to bring Vernon-Evans along slowly.
"He's a quick study, very strong physically and a high jumper," said the demanding coach. "But he's only 18. I don't want to risk an injury that could be a problem for next year.
"For a right side, he's already a good defender, likes it, works hard and that's good. Of course, that's not the most important [element]. You have to spike, block and have the mental strength. He has many skills to be a great leader."
Vernon-Evans said he and his teammates understand the goal to improve and focus on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As for his own volleyball dreams, Vernon-Evans said winning world championships and competing at the Summer Games would be "amazing" opportunities.
"I always believe the sky is the limit, and that's for everything in my life," he said. "Don't stress about things, just work. I live by trusting the process."