Player of the Year watch: After rocky introduction, Ronika Stone is crushing it at Oregon
Each week during the volleyball season, we'll recognize a player whose recent performances reinforce her place among the best in the nation. Consider it our way to check in on, or in some cases introduce, the personalities who will shape the race for espnW player of the year.
The line for middle blocker was the shortest one at seventh-grade volleyball tryouts at Valley Christian Junior High in San Jose, California. And that suited Ronika Stone just fine.
Stone was a basketball player anyway. What was a middle blocker again? She couldn't tell you.
"I'm glad my ADHD wouldn't let me wait around," said Stone, now a junior at Oregon who is morphing into one of the elite players in the nation for the 14th-ranked Ducks (11-5, 4-2).
But back in middle school, Stone didn't exactly have the position down pat. She'd often send the ball careening into the back wall of the gym.
"I couldn't hit the floor," she said. "Nobody knew where it was going. Everyone was afraid on the other side of the net."
That last part may still be true. Stone, who stands 6-foot-2, leads the Ducks in kills (180) and blocks (77).
"When she's on her game, no one can stop her," Oregon coach Matt Ulmer said.
The Ducks' second-year head coach thinks Stone can develop into the kind of weapon that Inky Ajanaku became at Stanford her senior season. The 6-3 middle blocker was the Most Outstanding Player of the final four in 2016, when the Cardinal won the national championship. Both players are undersized middles, long and athletic leapers who are potent defenders and lethal hitters.
"Ronika's a really dynamic attacker, and I think she's the best slide hitter off one foot in the country," Ulmer said.
Stone had a remarkable night in Oregon's biggest win of the season, an upset of Minnesota last month when she hit .615 with a career-high 19 kills and 5 blocks.
"When we run our offense, I don't think anybody can stop us," she said.
Last weekend the Ducks went 2-0 in Los Angeles, defeating UCLA (8-5, 3-3) and USC (12-5, 4-2). Stone had 10 kills and 1 error in hitting .450 against the Trojans, particularly noteworthy as that performance came on the heels of an underwhelming offensive showing against UCLA. Although she had 7 blocks in that match, her 6 kills came with 5 errors.
A year ago, a night like that would have affected her play two days later at USC.
"Back then I would have been crushed," she said.
Stone used to fixate on stats. After her first kill in a match, the voice inside her head would celebrate that she was hitting 1,000. If an error followed, she'd chastise herself to hit the next ball in.
"That ruined me," she said. "I wanted to be the highlight reel."
But Oregon's highest-ranked recruit ever is now firm in her mindset that being a team player is what makes your team tick.
"Volleyball's the best team sport there is," said Stone, who has a sister (Ronna) on the Oregon track team, a brother (Ron Jr.) on the Washington State football team and a dad (Ron) who was a four-time Pro Bowler in the NFL. "Everyone has to be involved. You can't be Kobe Bryant and take over."
At times, Stone still prompts herself to slow down her approach, challenging for a mind that runs at racehorse speed.
"When she wants to take over, she goes too quickly," Ulmer said. "She gets anxious and goes. That creates a really small window to get her the ball."
The timing of it all is a work in progress that Stone is seeking to perfect, along with better defensive skills and a stronger serve.
"I remind myself I don't need to go 100 miles per hour," she said. "When I do slow down, I have more vision. And that's what's going to take me to the next level."
The aim, too, for both her and the Ducks is consistency -- avoiding the kind of effort two weeks ago when Oregon dropped a pair of home games to Arizona (14-4, 3-3) and Arizona State (13-5, 4-2).
"You can't relax in the Pac-12 in volleyball," she said. "Last year, we might have continued into a slump. I'm so happy that we can flip the switch. We know how good we can be."