Janell Sparks's long journey from Tacoma to Charlotte paying off for the 49ers
Janell Sparks, born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, took a giant leap of faith bringing her talents on the volleyball court to the campus of UNC Charlotte. That giant leap is a giant drive, making for a 41 hour trip by car, covering 2,818 miles of the United States from the west coast to the east coast.
For Sparks, a 6-foot outside hitter, playing volleyball never seemed to be the goal for her, as her first passion was dance.”I’ve been playing volleyball since the sixth grade but I danced up until the eighth grade. I was really upset when my mom made me switch to volleyball because I loved dancing,” said Sparks. “My mom kept telling me that I was too tall to not play a sport and that I could go to college for volleyball one day.”
Good thing Janell listened to her mom’s advice.
Sparks went on to play at Curtis High School in Tacoma, Washington, finding a strong connection with her volleyball coach her sophomore year, Jeff Grosshans, leading to her upcoming success at the prep level.
In high school, Sparks began as a middle. As soon as Sparks became a savvy middle player, coach Grosshans threw her a curveball that would go on to change her volleyball career, although Sparks was blind to the decision at first.
“My coach told me that I needed to switch to an outside hitter because middles are normally 6-foot-3 or taller in college,” said Sparks. I hated the decision at first because I thought I would not be able to play in college because I can’t learn how to play this new position in just two years.”
That “bad situation” turned into a blessing for the now outside hitter for the Charlotte 49ers, learning more about herself in the change of positions then she thought was feasible.
“Once I started to get the hang of outside during high school and year around club volleyball, that’s when I really started to grow into my own person as an athlete and an outside hitter, specifically because I took it as a personal challenge to really work for it,” said Sparks.
“I never really worked hard to succeed at a position before, whether it being dance or playing middle, because it just happened. But once I knew I had such a short time to learn the position, I took it as a challenge and I guess it worked since I’m still playing,” Sparks laughed.
During this tough transition from middle to outside hitter, Sparks was also in the midst of qualifying for five-straight junior olympics. Yes, five-straight. “My first bid was when I was 13 in Reno, Nevada,” said Sparks. “Every year from then on, I grew with my group of girls. I was middle with them for the first three years and then moved to outside. So each year we got national bids with our team always coming in first, which was a dream come true.”
As a junior in high school, Janell Sparks became a name that was being tossed around from college to college, starting the recruiting process with a visit to the University of Montana. When Sparks arrived to her first official visit, she was overwhelmed and excited to start the recruiting experience. Little did she know, the trips would end at Montana.
“When I went on my visit, my mom came with me and no one in my family has gone through the process of being recruited so once I went to Montana I said, ‘Yes, I commit,’ in a heartbeat. I quickly found out after my visit that I could have waited it out and visited other schools before committing.”
After receiving plenty of offers from other schools after her commitment to the University of Montana, Sparks said that looking back on the recruiting process, “It was definitely a learning experience.”
Sparks went on to shine at Montana in her two years as an outside hitter, compiling 349 kills in 52 matches and 60 blocks. If the eight hour trip from Tacoma, Washington, to Missoula, Montana, wasn’t far enough, Sparks wanted to go more east and find some more diversity in a college.
That search for diversity brought her to North Carolina, narrowing down her options to a few schools in the state. “I really wanted to move east,” Sparks said. “I started emailing schools and one of the biggest things that I was looking for was more diversity. Charlotte had that. Oh, and volleyball too.”
“We knew a coach that had formally trained a teammate of Janell’s at the University of Montana so there was a connection there,” said Charlotte’s head volleyball coach Karen Weatherington. “I saw videos of her before and also talked to her former head coach who was very complementary of Janell. What I liked about her was her athleticism and just her approach to the game. She’s a great athlete that’s always working to get better.”
After thinking long and hard about transferring to Charlotte all the way from Montana, she made the commitment to coach Weatherington and the 49ers, making her an immediate impact player in the lineup.
“Janell is one of those players who will do exactly what you ask her to do at a moments notice,” said coach Weatherington. “I think the Charlotte Invitational gave her an opportunity to get a little more comfortable with her new teammates.” The 6-foot-3 junior is so comfortable with her new team that she collected her first accolade just three games into the 2016 season, being named to the Charlotte Invitational all-tournament team with 43 kills over the three matches.
Before she gets a kill as an outside hitter, Sparks has a different but effective way of mentally preparing herself as her teammate is about to set her up for success. “As the setter is setting the ball, I already picture myself getting a kill,” said Sparks. “I don’t really think about anything else. I already have pictured where I want to get the kill.”
So as you make your way into Dale F. Halton Arena on game day, it may be hard to find Sparks’ without a smile on her face, already knowing steps before she approaches the ball that a point is awaiting her team.