When it comes time for the NCAA tournament, Henry Chen has to be at his best to keep going.
But its competition is a little different.
He is not a volleyball player or coach on a team looking for a national championship. The Hope College graduate wants to prove he’s one of the best linesmen in the country.
Chen has proven that over the years, but this season was the highlight when he was selected as one of the linesmen for the NCAA Division I Championship game between Wisconsin and Nebraska.
“First time in the final,” Chen said. “I have made it to the semi-finals four times in the past five years. I had a super fun run. It was an honor. It’s always the hardest thing to get there. But it was great because it’s the work you put into it. It was a fun atmosphere and the crew was great.”
Chen was an official for Division III championships at Hope College and Calvin in the past, but has now proven to be one of the top officials in Division I.
He was one of three officials to be selected for the Final Four twice in one calendar year. Two seasons ago, the pandemic pushed the championships into the spring, where he judged a national semifinal match. In December he was in the semifinals and finals.
“Only 20 line judges were selected due to the smaller field of participants (nominated by a conference). Each NCAA site has eight people. You will be selected to continue or go home. If you do well, you will be selected for the second round,” Chen said. “Only 16 make it to the next round. Then eight. Then you go back home and wait. Then four linesmen and four referees form the championship team.”
Chen experienced the opposites during his two Final Four appearances in 2021.
The first Final Four in Omaha had no fans, while the December Championships in Columbus, Ohio, had the most fans in the history of the sport — plus the most TV viewership in the history of the sport.
“It was great. The atmosphere was great. Omaha was the one in the bubble (earlier this year). It was more back to normal. There were measures and we wore masks, but just to have the feel of the crowd. It’s the excitement of the sport, and I love that. It was back in such a great way,” he said.
That excitement prompted Chen to enlist in the first place. It started at Hope College when he was a student.
“I started at Hope and played for the Hope club team. My roommate and I were asked to help out and line up for Hope women’s volleyball. We’ve done it a lot,” he says.
Chen then got certified to participate in other locations, and it grew from there.
“I came in when the sport was just growing. I started when it was hand gestures. We went to flags and I made my own flags when that started,” he said.
Now Chen is helping officials grow along with the sport. He is the Umpire President for USA Volleyball’s riparian area and is the board president of the Michigan Board of Volleyball Officers for the University.
“My passion is guiding other linesmen. I judge people who want to become a national linesman and am one of the instructors of the front camp. That helps me because I’m giving back to the sport, but I know I have to give my best in the public eye that way. Over the past 10 years, I’ve invested a lot in how line judges are perceived,” Chen said. “There’s such a split-second decision part in it that you just have to train for it. The more you see, the more confidence you get.”
And it just might lead to selection for the NCAA championships.
— Contact sports editor Dan D’Addona at Dan.D’Addona@hollandsentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanDAddona and Facebook @Holland Sentinel Sports.