Riley Fahnholz and Luke Brown never wanted to play boys’ volleyball.
The coach at Jackson Liberty High School, 27-year old Brian Chesley, a 6-2 athlete, cornered them in the hallway and convinced them to come out for the team.
It sounds intimidating, and that’s exactly what it was.
“He just came up to me and said, ‘Hey, volleyball tryouts are in March, you should come,'” Fahnholz said.
“I had him for math and he always talked to me about it. Then if I saw him in the hallway, he’d always talk about it,” Brown said. “Chesley pretty much forced me to play.”
Fahnholz and Brown came out for the team and quickly fell in love with their new sport.
A few years later, they are volleyball standouts for an emerging contender in the Shore Conference and in central New Jersey.
As outside hitters, Brown (57 kills) and Fahnholz (47) have combined for 104 kills. They have also led Jackson Liberty to a 4-2 start overall and a 3-0 mark in conference play.
Chesley, a 2010 Jackson Liberty graduate and current gym teacher at the school, started the boys’ volleyball program in 2015 and has gradually recruited enough players, 24, to have a varsity, junior varsity and freshman team for the first time this spring.
The Lions have not yet made the Shore Conference Tournament or the NJSIAA Central Jersey Tournament. Teams have to be .500 or above by the early May cutoff dates to make both brackets. Behind its outside duo, this could be Jackson Liberty’s year to break through.
“We have high hopes,” Chesley said.
“As long as we keep playing as a team, we can make a statement,” added Fahnholz.
It’s not a lofty goal because the Lions have two standouts at the most important position, outside hitter.
Fahnholz is 6-4 and, as the basketball coaches say, “he can jump out of the gym,” Chesley said. Brown is “only” 6-1 but, like his teammate, and like most basketball standouts in America, “he can jump out of the gym,” Chesley said.
The volleyball boss actually did coach Brown in basketball too, on the freshmen and JV teams at the Jackson Township school.
“I knew he was athletic, so he’s a natural volleyball player,” added Chesley.
Outside hitters are the volleyball version of basketball scorers. Teams can’t win without them. But they also need their defensive specialists and point guards to create possessions and set them up for shots, and the Lions have those guys as well.
Junior setter Nic Mathias has 125 assists this season, or more than 20 per game. Junior libero Kellie Koroma often positions Matthias for his assists, with a team leading 53 digs. Senior middle blockers Keyvon Harris and Lukasz Talalaj are also defensive specialists, with 10 blocks each so far this year.
“We have our two stars and then everybody else does his job,” Chesley said.
Not bad for a program that started with a coach cornering students in the hallway.
That coach, as you might expect, is also deeply committed to what he has built. After spending a couple years as a substitute teacher at Jackson Liberty, he is now a full time gym teacher.
“I expect to be here for a long time,” Chesley said. “Volleyball has already gotten so much more popular in the school community. I can’t imagine how much it’ll grow in the next 10 years.”