Jefferson Academy head boys basketball coach Mark Sharpley has been one of the most respected coaches in our area, and several others, for years.
Sharpley is closing in on a coaching milestone that few coaches at any level reach, as he currently sits one win shy of 400 for his high school coaching career. On Wednesday, I caught up with the revered coach to chat about the record and what's going on with the Jaguars in 2017-18.
Question: The last time we touched base was prior to the season and you said the Jaguars would be a young and inexperienced team this winter. You guys are off to a 2-1 start and recently finished runners-up at your own tournament. What have you learn about your club so far in December?
Sharpley: Well, we do have a lot of youth and a lot of inexperience, and we knew that that was going to be the case. We're going to have to really focus on fundamentals and stay the course with the basics, and keep things as simplified as we can for the young kids. Our goal is to focus on getting better and I think they'll continue to do that as we go along.
A good portion of the game, our tallest guy is going to be around 6-foot-1, 6-foot-2, so we're not big, but I would say our strength is our kids' willingness to learn. They're just good student-athletes. They really work hard and work to fix mistakes. Perseverance and depth will also be good qualities of ours. While defense is a real weakness of ours, I think that will really improve throughout the year.
So after over 20 years of coaching high school basketball, you are now one win away from 400 in your impressive career. You're currently 399-118 to be exact. What does achieving that milestone mean to you?
You know what, it's been a blessing to coach a lot of great kids. We've had a lot of good kids in this program and when I was back at Belleview Christian, we had great kids there too. It's also great that I have been able to keep in touch with a lot of them. I just feel really lucky and really privileged to have gotten to work with so many great kids.
I don't really think about it as a personal achievement because the players are the ones who do all the work, put in all the time and score all the baskets. As coaches, we're just here to encourage them and teach them about the game. It really has been a lot of fun.
Throughout all that time coaching, the highs and the lows, what has been your favorite memory from your career so far?
Being able to coach both of my sons in a state championship game was amazing. Just to coach both of them throughout their careers and to watch them have such success was such a great experience for a coach and a father. There have been so many great moments, but there was really nothing like that.
What I really appreciated about both of them was that they were both team-first guys and such coachable kids. They always sacrificed for the best of the team, and they both liked and appreciated their teammates. They understood that their successes were the result of the collective efforts of the team. It was great to watch them both mature in that way and then go on to play college basketball.
Circling back to the current season, one of your young players has gotten off to a great start and is really surprising. Sophomore Elian Soto is averaging 17.0 point a game through your first three. What have you seen out of him so far?
He's such a great kid. He's a great baseball player and he always does the extra little bit to get better, and he's so respectful to his teammates, us coaches, to officials and to other players. Obviously being a two-sport athlete, he's probably a baseball-first guy but I think the sky is the limit for him in basketball too. He brings a great work ethic and attitude to the team, but he can also really shoot it.
Elian had some really good games on JV last year, but you never know how that's going to translate to varsity, and he spent a ton of time on baseball this summer. But he's spent a lot of time on his shot and he's been a great boost for us so far.
Another guy, you're only returning varsity player actually, Riley Welsch, just won a Class 5A state championship with Pomona. What does it do for a young team to have a guy walk into the gym after having achieved such a lofty accomplishment?
The kids were so excited to have him back because he provides that steady, quiet leadership. Riley didn't even take a day off. He laced up the basketball shoes and he was back in the gym on Monday. Next week, we'll get another kid back who was on the state golf team, so we'll have a lot of experience from some of our school's better multi-sport athletes. We're really a blend of multi-sport guys, which we feel like is a strength.