All semester, sophomore Sophia Stone has caught the eyes of officials and her peers in the USA South Athletic Conference.
After dominating several cross country meets this fall, Stone was named USA South runner of the week on four occasions. On Wednesday, she was recognized as conference runner of the year. And this weekend, she hopes to add one more accolade: conference champion.
Stone will join other runners from the region for the USA South championships Saturday in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is the first Mary Baldwin University athlete to earn a USA South player-of-the-year honor.
“I’m nervous,” said the 17-year-old from Pacific Palisades, California. “I think there are expectations that [I] need to do well … but I guess that pushes me to try harder. I’m just hoping for the best and I know that I can do it if I try. So I think I’ll just give it my best and see what happens.”
Since her first race four years ago as a ninth grader, Stone has always experienced pre-race butterflies. While she’s running, she’s motivated by competition, the encouragement of teammates, and the promise of water — and sometimes food — at the finish.
Competitors at the conference championships will race in the 6K, a contest Stone prefers as an endurance runner, pointing out “the last kilometer is where I can really push myself and pick off other runners.”
Another secret to Stone’s success is likely her versatility. She has experience running on different terrain back home and on the varying landscapes found in Staunton — with 6 a.m. practices at the R.E. Lee High School track and on the slopes of winding and rural roads like Bells Lane.
“The hills … you can’t avoid them here,” she said. “Back home I typically ran on the beach. I guess I got to work more on running fast on flat terrain back home and here I get different intervals, different tempos, on the hilly terrain.”
At the beginning of the season, Stone’s goal was personal. She simply wanted to run better than the year before. It didn’t help that in July and early August she was plagued with a nasty bout of plantar fasciitis, painful inflammation of the tissue on the bottom of the foot. With the help of Mary Baldwin Athletic Trainer Charlie Angersbach, Stone managed her condition, but unfortunately, other obstacles would arise.
“Hip flexor injury, knee pain, shin splints, and everything else imaginable, it seems like,” Stone said. “But such is the life of a runner, and I’ve learned to listen to my body, take care of it when it’s in pain, and get through the injuries while continuing to train.”
Despite the physical impairments and low expectations, Stone was the top performer in four of the five events she entered this season, setting two school records in both the 5K and 6K. The runner credits coaches Sharon Spalding and Holly Breen ’10 with helping her accomplish so much this season. Both women acknowledge Stone’s drive and sportsmanship.
“Sophia must set a fast pace in races and practices and then maintain it on her own,” said Head Cross Country Coach and Athletic Director Sharon Spalding. “There is a big difference between her times and those of her teammates, but she supports them at the end of each race and each practice. She gives her best each day.”
Assistant Coach Holly Breen added, “She is respectful of all teammates and competitors, hardworking, and motivating.”
One of the things Stone likes best about running is “the opportunity to be on your own, be with your own thoughts. I also like the competition and succeeding in another place other than academia.”
Mary Baldwin’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted allowed the intelligent and articulate teen to bypass two years of high school. She enjoys the small classes, the diversity of the student body, and the ability to conduct research and work closely with professors. While pursuing majors in biology and psychology, Stone said running keeps her on track, lets her sort things out mentally, and alleviates some of the academic pressure.
When she is not training or studying, Stone works as business manager for Campus Comments, plays piano at her church, and serves as president of a student group she founded — the Let’s End The Stigma, or LETS, Club.
In the coming weeks, she hopes to expand her success — at least on the cross-country course. After the conference championship, Stone will likely have a shot at NCAA regionals and finals.
“It’s kind of exciting to think I have a chance at these different opportunities,” she said, “and I thank God that he’s let me run this year and let me do well.”