Julie Anderson thought her daughter, Amelia, looked like a little “gangly giraffe” when she was in the seventh grade.
At 5-foot-10, the 13-year-old was playing on the “B” team at Bernotas Middle School in Crystal Lake. Amelia excelled at equestrian, and was playing volleyball just for fun.
Until Sherry Harris, the godmother of McHenry County club volleyball, walked into her life.
Harris saw it, even if no one else did: Amelia had all the attributes of a star. Harris used her mental checklist, the one she’s thinking of when she approaches tall men and pregnant women on trips to area big box stores, and approached Julie at a match at Bernotas.
“Your daughter is going to be amazing at volleyball one day,” Harris said.
Julie thought Harris was nuts, and told her as much.
“I think you’re wrong,” she responded.
The back and forth continued until, like often happens in conversations with Harris about volleyball, Harris gets her way and the parent is sold. Amelia started training privately with Harris several hours a week. She ran through drills repeatedly, often long after Sky High’s teams had finished and the gym’s main lights went dark.
“Sherry just wanted to make me better,” Amelia said. “She didn’t care what time they had to come in or what we had to do or how many hours it took.”
By the end of her eighth-grade season, Amelia was the best player on her middle school team.
Four years later, she was a 6-foot-2 Indiana University signee who held Crystal Lake Central records for career kills and blocks in a single season. She also helped lead Sky High to AAU national championships in 2010 and 2011.
For Harris, discovering and molding young talent comes naturally. She created Sky High, and her unorthodox recruiting style has helped grow it into one of the nation’s elite volleyball clubs.
With Harris – the former coach at McHenry County College – the process begins with a sales pitch, regardless the age.
“I’ll recruit them right in utero,” Harris says, unashamed. “I’ll write ‘SH’ on them.”
Scott and Sherry Harris routinely carry Sky High promotional materials with them. The couple puts glossy media guides, filled with photos and accomplishments, into parents’ hands, using a well-rehearsed sales pitch to draw players to Sky High’s Crystal Lake training center.
Sherry’s eyes are always trained on specific characteristics. She’s not afraid to walk up to perfect strangers if she senses they may have a daughter who could fit in at Sky High.
“If they’re tall and they have big feet, she’s obsessed,” said Laura Watling, who played for Sherry as a 13-year-old and now coaches at Sky High and runs Marian Central’s varsity program. “She’ll look at a little kid and she’ll say, ‘They have big feet – that means they’re going to grow. They’re going to get tall. We want her.’”
It’s just a part of who Harris is. So is a situation like this: Sherry recently interrupted a 13-year-old team practice at Sky High’s training facility, frantically waved her arms and insisted that practice drills pick up in pace. She’s constantly pushing toward perfection, unafraid to circumvent a coach’s practice style.
“There will be times I’ll be coaching and she’ll come in the middle of a practice and she’ll say, ‘You need to do it this way,’ or ‘You’re not doing that right,’” Sky High and Cary-Grove varsity coach Patty Langanis said. “I’ll think, ‘Sherry, I’ve been doing this for years!’ and I’ll get frustrated.
“But I’ll go home and sleep on it and more often than not, I’ll wake up the next day and think, ‘You now what, she was flippin’ right.’ I have to swallow my pride because she knows what she’s talking about.”
On a summer Sunday night when Sky High’s industrial park training facility is buzzing with young volleyball talent as part of the club’s Volley Kids program, Scott is asked where his wife of 32 years is.
Scott shrugs his shoulders and returns to watching over a youth volleyball program he and Sherry developed to draw the passion out of kids at a young age.
Outside, Sherry methodically makes her way around a large parking lot as her prized white Bichon Frise, Cosmo, tugs on the leash.
Sherry boasts that Cosmo is Sky High’s unofficial watchdog – a regular member of the family who a year ago had a full-fledged birthday party, complete with paper hats and cake that was attended by a large number of Sky High players and coaches.
Sherry, after all, doesn’t do anything halfway. She is everywhere, bouncing between coach and caretaker, demanding of those who oversee Sky High’s various teams what she expects from herself – to turn passion for a game she has built her life around into success on the court.
Sherry is passionate, so much so that she can be as excitable with an adolescent up-and-comer as she ever was with her college players. Those who know her best characterize her as intense, pushing 13-year-old girls as hard as she does her elite level players. Her expectations, even among strangers, are unmistakable.
“Sherry – she knows what she wants,” Watling said. “She can be nice, but when it comes to volleyball, she can be intense. But that’s what the sport does to you. You become this whole other person.”
Behind a closed office door, with Cosmo drinking bottled water out of a silver water dish, Sherry sits a few feet away from the desk where Scott oversees the club’s business.
Scott coaches the program’s elite teams. Sherry takes care of marketing the club while using her passion to motivate young players.
As Scott repeats the mild-mannered sales pitch he uses to attract top players to Sky High, his wife sits nearby shaking her head in disagreemnt. Scott talks in terms of championships won and how the club boasts a 96 percent success rate of landing its players college volleyball scholarships.
“I don’t say any of that,” Sherry says, recounting how she targets parents first as a gauge to determine if girls are playing for the right reasons and how girls will only be succesful if they have a passion for the game.
Scott is the brains of the operation. Sherry, whose hair is three shades of dark red after recently having it touched up, remains the club’s face. She has built Sky High into a nationally elite club thanks in part to some unique, and often quirky, personality traits that keep her popular among players and coaches.
“You’ll see her do something,” Watling said, “and you just say to yourself, ‘That’s Sherry being Sherry.’”
Once inside the Sky High program, girls learn Sherry’s way. But her influence extends beyond Sky High.
Lisa Reddish coaches Sky High’s 13 Black team, but also heads up Crystal Lake Central’s varsity program. Routinely, during summer camps, she uses a drill only a coach with Sherry’s mind could have conceptualized.
It’s a fast-paced exercise that utilizes three girls blocking at the net. Once they’ve each made contact with the ball, they dart underneath the net, playing on the other side, remaining in constant motion.
Girls have nicknamed it the “Sherry Drill,” paying homage to a coach who is always searching for the next best thing to bring her players to the next competitive level. In the past, Sherry would find out what drills the U.S. National Team was running and she’d introduce them to Sky High’s 13-year-old teams.
Sherry would explain it to players but if they didn’t catch on, her former players say, Sherry would jump into the thick of it all, demonstrating how she wanted things run – no matter the youthfulness of the players trying to meet expectations.
“I think every player will agree, Sherry compares everything you do at any level to her 13s teams,” said Crystal Lake South varsity coach Jorie Fontana, who played for Sherry at Sky High. “You could be on the 17s team and she’ll say, ‘I can’t believe you can’t do this. My 13s can do this.’ It’s just the consistent way Sherry is.”
It’s been more than two decades since the Harrises founded Sky High as a means of feeding talented players into her McHenry County College volleyball program, and Sherry has no plans of walking away.
Growing Sky High into what it has become was never the intention. Sherry has operated businesses for almost 50 years, first considering a privatized ambulance service and then a dance studio.
Sherry, who at 68 is 13 years older than Scott, doesn’t blink when asked how she met her husband.
“Despite public opinion,” she begins, “I was not his babysitter.”
Scott laughs. Sherry remains straight-faced.
While volleyball helped bring them together, a love of dancing sealed the deal. Together the Harrises have taken private lessons and classes, learning various styles of dances – including swing and the “Travolta type of thing” that Sherry demonstrates by swirling in her chair. Sky High players often request to see the couple dance during weekend road trips for tournaments although Scott and Sherry prefer to limit their dancing skills to wedding and parties.
But the love for dancing could never touch Sherry’s passion for volleyball.
Now, with so much invested, Sky High established as a national brand and more than two decades of impacting thousands of lives, the Harrises can’t envision life without the club.
“We were just trying to do something that would help advance the sport in this area and give girls an opportunity to play,” Scott said. “We never thought it would get to be like this.”
For anyone who knows Sherry, Sky High’s success comes as no surprise.
Fontanta, for one, sees Sherry’s fingerprints all over the club.
Fontana sees them in the way the teams practice, the way coaches push to get the most out of their players, and in the young girls learning the game with smiles across their faces with a passion to improve.
For Fontana, there’s a piece of her former coach that comes out every day. As Fontana speaks to her players, she finds herself passing on lessons she learned years ago from Sherry.
“The thing about Sherry is she’s timeless in an unbelievable way,” Fontana said. “She has the same energy, the same passion.”