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This article was published 3/9/2019 (623 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Sharone Vernon-Evans is 6-9 and jumps ridiculously high — he’s the embodiment of a rising young star in the volleyball world.
His soaring 12-foot-61/2-inch spike touch is unrivalled in the history of the Canadian men’s national team program and it’s also one of the best in the world.
Yet for all of his athletic skill, the 21-year-old from Scarborough, Ont., is not indestructible. The steel rod inserted in the tibia of his left leg, necessary to repair a stress fracture, and the brace on his right ankle, protecting a previously torn ligament, is evidence of that.
Volleyball is hard on the body, particularly for elite athletes.
But when he’s healthy, Vernon-Evans has the size, athleticism and savvy to be a matchup nightmare.
What’s more, he may only be scratching the surface of his potential after joining the national team program directly out of high school three years ago, spending his first year at the national training centre in Gatineau, Que., before starting a pro career in Poland.
"He’s obviously very gifted physically — an intelligent kid," Team Canada head coach Glenn Hoag said Monday after a training session in preparation for the NORCECA Championship currently underway at the University of Winnipeg’s Duckworth Centre.
"He had a good skill level when he came, which is often the problem with opposites, but Sharone played left side before, receiver attacker, so he has basic skills that are needed for defence... So he already had a good level of skills. Now, the last two years, he was with (former Canadian head coach) Stéphane Antiga in Poland, so that was kind of an agreement, we had to keep him and make him progress."
That progress has come quickly for Vernon-Evans, who took up volleyball in Grade 8 only after his club basketball team folded a year earlier. Playing volleyball in hoops-mad Greater Toronto wasn’t a popular decision at first.
"Sometimes, guys would say, ‘You should play basketball,’ but after they’d seen me play (volleyball), it was like, it’s not really about what you should play but what you’re passionate about and you go with it," said Vernon-Evans, who decided to delay a career in culinary arts for full-time volleyball training after high school.
"I wanted to pursue my dreams in volleyball and I had the resources to do that with the full-time training centre, so I just went."
Since then, the national team’s youngest player has grown up in the program.
"I’m maturing every year," Vernon-Evans said. "I came in at 18. You don’t know much and you don’t do anything the guys do. I didn’t stretch at all, I didn’t really lift as good as they did. I didn’t eat as good as they did. I was very inconsistent... Since then, I’m just a lot more focused.
"The knowledge of the game has increased as well, and being able to have these guys to rely on and to help and always keep you in check is good. I’m definitely the baby brother on the team."
Canada’s Graham Vigrass said a more serious approach and seasoning in a tough European league made a difference for his young teammate.
"That’s part of it and being around us, we’ve all played for quite a long time," said Vigrass, in his seventh year with the senior nats.
"I think that helps him."
Vernon-Evans’ arrival was timely, coinciding with superstar opposite Gavin Schmitt’s decision to retire from the national team after a fifth-place finish at the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016.
Schmitt may not be completely out of consideration for the national team yet, but Vernon-Evans will be an integral part of any qualifying bid for the 2020 Olympics.
"He’s got all the gifts to be on the team," said outside Gord Perrin, a 30-year-old with 10 years in the national program.
"We were in a phase where we needed an opposite when Gavin transitioned out of his role, so it worked out that he got a big chunk of responsibility and it’s helped him grow into a solid player. But I think he still has a lot to learn about the game and I think he can be an incredible player in the future."
Curiously, Vernon-Evans’ ability to soar above the reach of most blockers doesn’t always make his job easier but he’s learning to adapt his game in the way only experience can bring.
"More often than not, trying to go high is harder just because you have to have a pure wrist to land (the ball) in the court," Vernon-Evans said.
"Otherside, you’re always hitting over and out, right? Sometimes, it’s a challenge — I struggle with that a bit — sometimes, I’ll go too high and just miss everyone."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.