High fives have been a regular part of Justin Sharfenaker's life for almost as long as he can remember, but he's also gotten a few extra pats on the back this spring.

The Briggs High School sophomore first began playing volleyball at the club level seven years ago, creating extensive videos of himself spiking the ball and celebrating with teammates on a Hudl.com page that could set him on a path to eventually play in college.

A 6-foot-4 outside hitter, Sharfenaker now is part of a trailblazing effort as one of 13 players on a Briggs boys team competing in its inaugural season.

Entering a match against Upper Arlington on April 19, Briggs was 2-3 with its first win coming against Licking Heights (18-25, 20-25, 25-22, 25-22, 15-5 on April 3), which has had a program for several years. Its other victory was against Eastmoor Academy (25-23, 26-24, 22-25, 25-21 on April 11), a fellow first-year program.

"Every time you get to represent your school, it's fun," Sharfenaker said. "People from school congratulate you after a win, and you're making history because you're a part of the first team in school history. It's kind of a fresh start."

Briggs and Eastmoor are two of three schools from central Ohio to add boys volleyball as a club sport this spring, with Reynoldsburg being the other.

Although the sport has struggled to show consistent growth since holding its first state tournament in 1988, participation numbers have risen slowly but steadily in recent years, heightening the hopes of coaches throughout central Ohio who would like to see it be sanctioned by the Ohio High School Athletic Association someday.

Obstacles remain, however, such as instability among varsity programs and numbers barriers as boys volleyball strives to walk the same path bowling and lacrosse recently took to OHSAA status.

Reynoldsburg coach Matt Bailey, who served as an assistant boys coach in the Pickerington school district for more than a decade and coached the Raiders' girls team the last two years, knows starting a program is the first of many important steps for his team and the sport.

"We took a few of them to an (Ohio State men's) match and that was a huge eye-opener," Bailey said. "With boys volleyball, we're trying to get sanctioned by the OHSAA. One of the things they want to see is growth. With my love of the game, I want to see the sport grow. There are still some logistics, but hopefully they'll push us through over the next couple years."

Breaking down
the numbers

There are seven new boys volleyball teams across the state this spring, including the three in central Ohio. The others are Chillicothe, Cincinnati Walnut Hills, Trotwood-Madison and Xenia.

Seventy-nine schools in the state now have programs, with 28 being in the East Region, which is comprised solely of teams from the Central District. There are 20 teams in the South Region, 17 in the West Region and 14 in the North Region.

Boys volleyball is split into two divisions in the postseason, with eight teams advancing to the state tournament in Division I and four advancing in Division II.

According to ohioboysvolleyball.com, participation numbers have gradually increased since 2011, when there were 66 programs in the state. That number jumped to 69 in 2012 and, after dropping to 68 in 2013, increased to 70 in 2014, 71 in 2015 and 74 last season.

"We were supposed to start (this season with) 87 (teams), but (a few) ended up not fielding teams and two delayed their start," said Kettering Alter coach Craig Erford, president of the Ohio High School Boys Volleyball Association. "We were pretty stagnant for a while at about 67, but we've moved up 12 over the past two years."

One issue boys volleyball has faced in building its overall participation numbers is that some schools have had to cancel fledgling programs.

While at least six players are needed to field a team, Briggs, Eastmoor and Reynoldsburg all have double-digit participation numbers. Columbus International also had planned to field a team this spring, but didn't have enough players.

North Union from the Central District and Amherst Steele from the Northeast District elected not to field teams this year. North Union had teams in 2015 and '16 and Steele had teams in 2013, '14 and '16.

"Seventeen (schools) have dropped boys volleyball since 2010," Erford said. "Sometimes it's hard to keep the school support, but I'm very happy with what we've done over the past two years."

Obstacles to
OHSAA sanctioning

The first boys volleyball state tournament was held in 1988 and by 1990 there was an 11-team Central Ohio Volleyball League, prompting speculation at the time that the sport might be the next one to be sanctioned by the OHSAA.

Although central Ohio has slowly added teams over the years, the sport hasn't caught on in some parts of the state.

The North Region is comprised of teams from northeast Ohio, while the West Region is made up of teams mostly from the Dayton and Cincinnati areas and the South Region is comprised entirely of schools from the Southwest District.

There are no teams from the Northwest District.

By comparison, since the OHSAA added boys and girls bowling in 2007, that sport has grown enough to expand from one to two divisions.

This spring, the OHSAA will hold its first state tournaments in boys and girls lacrosse.

"We've had some really good conversations with (the OHSAA)," said Gahanna coach Mike Sage, secretary of the state boys volleyball coaches association. "We're growing really fast. When I talk to (athletics directors), they say (they'll support a team) when it gets sanctioned. We're in that Catch-22 where we're a low-cost program, but of course, it takes away from baseball and lacrosse. It would be nice (to be OHSAA-sanctioned) because it would provide state recognition for our players."

According to OHSAA assistant commissioner Jerry Snodgrass, the OHSAA's bylaws require that a sport have 250 schools participating before it officially can be adopted as a sport.

Gymnastics, field hockey and hockey fall well below that threshold but were grandfathered in as OHSAA-sanctioned sports in the 1970s.

There are 136 schools participating in boys lacrosse and 121 participating in girls lacrosse this spring.

That sport was brought in by the OHSAA under the umbrella of an "emerging sport," which boys volleyball officials believe their sport falls under.

"I'm a big proponent of it when somebody wants to become a part (of the OHSAA)," Snodgrass said. "We're like any business. We can't take on a sport that's going to lose money. Lacrosse is two separate sports, but they wanted to be a part of it. We created a category of emerging sports that at least opens the door for us to look at boys volleyball. Most of those schools probably follow all of our regulations already."

A sport with
an upside

Eastmoor coach Sequoia Wright began recruiting athletes at her school during the winter and has 11 participants, including Taevion Kinsey and Stanley Williams from the boys basketball team, which made it to a Division II state semifinal.

"Boys are competitive," Wright said. "When we started, it was funny because for the first 20 minutes I said, 'Show me what you can do.' They were doing 'backyard' volleyball, but they caught on really quickly."

Erford said he and Gary Hajek, the executive director of the OHSBVA, made a presentation to the OHSAA regarding the sport's upside in February.

The OHSBVA is holding a 24-team "Spike for Tykes" tournament to benefit Nationwide Children's Hospital on May 5 at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. The event, which is in its second year, will be held the day between the NCAA men's Division I semifinals and finals that will be held at Ohio State.

In addition, adding boys volleyball isn't costly up front for schools because teams can practice with the same equipment used in girls volleyball.

"(Becoming OHSAA-sanctioned has) been a goal for a while," Olentangy Liberty coach Dave Hale said. "I certainly think it's something we're deserving of. We're gaining in popularity."

Another encouraging sign to Erford is that the sport has shown significant growth at the youth level.

Vanguard, which is the program that Sharfenaker competes for, has numerous teams for ages 12-18.

According to Erford, there are 13 club programs that field 70 boys teams throughout the state, and 21 are at the middle-school level.

There also has been an increase in the number of men's college programs in recent years, including Hiram, which is set to go varsity in 2018 in Division III.

"We're trying to start more of a grassroots effort because you have to be able to sustain those high school programs," Erford said. "You'll have parents interested in having a varsity program, but we're trying to promote youth volleyball programs in Ohio to sustain all those programs.

"We're following all the (OHSAA) bylaws and we've been making money. We broadcast all of our state champion-ship matches and we also do matches of the week and broadcast all of our regional matches. We've definitely increased our marketing expenses."

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek