By JOEL OPHARDT
Fighting for concentration through the buzzing crowd and burning lights, he draws a deep breath as he gazes into the ball, shuffling it methodically between his hands.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven …,” chant the opposing players, hoping to find a way to break into his walled off mind.
With one foot firmly in front of the other, he remains completely motionless, staring through the seams of the ball.
Just before the chant reaches “one”, he shuffles, takes a few quick steps –a toss, a leap, a well timed crack against the spin of the rubber –the ball whips down the court for a service ace.
As his teammates come together, he relaxes for a moment, soaking in the approval with a subtle smile.
The brief reprieve is over. He gathers his composure, retrieves the ball and brings it back in front of his face, blocking out the noise around him.
In a sport where momentum swings as wildly as its player’s emotions, it’s rare to find a volleyball player that stays as level headed as Steve Stone.
The 23-year-old St. Catharines native and setter for the Niagara Knights has been a leader for the college’s most successful men’s volleyball team in history, and the effect he has is seen throughout his team.
“Steve has been able to be a really effective leader for us this year,” said Logan Varga, the six-foot, five-inch middle blocker for Niagara College and good friend of Stone. “He has always been able to keep our whole team grounded.”
While all the other schools at the national volleyball championships where chirping or cheering at every point, the Knights made a name for themselves as the team with a calm demeanour. That started with a top to bottom philosophy of keeping a level head, a trend that Stone exemplified as a fourth-year veteran athlete for the college.
“Volleyball can be a very emotional sport,” said Stone, acknowledging his relative lack of expression during his matches. “You don’t want your emotions to get the best of you. You want to be in control at all times, so you can be successful.”
Looking back, Stone attributes some of his style to his days at Eden High School, where he won three Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) championships under coach Albino Pereira.
In those days he wasn’t sure which sport he would play, performing well in basketball as well as club baseball.
Pereira’s coaching style influenced him to subconsciously put more time into volleyball, transforming a hobby into a passion.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard him raise his voice,” said Stone, recalling his days at Eden. “He’s always very positive, loving and encouraging towards everyone.”
Stone began coaching during his free time, funnelling his athletic efforts further towards volleyball.
When it came time to graduate and pick a sport he would try at college, he began to realize that volleyball was where all his time and effort had gone.
Spending a year at Niagara College studying business, Steve made the team on a walk on tryout – something he is still proud of.
It wasn’t a linear path to his recent success, as his program left him uninspired.
He left Niagara and explored a 1 ½-year stint at Redeemer College, in Ancaster, Ont., studying physical education and playing for their volleyball team before he decided to travel. He would spend time in Australia and England doing youth missions and playing volleyball for over a year.
It was during this time that he began to carve out his role in life as a leader.
“I found that I love being able to pour into young people’s lives, help them along, even when it’s not volleyball related. I love to be able to be there for them and give them some positivity in their lives when they might not have it.”
Upon returning to Canada, he began to help out at the Niagara Rapids Volleyball Club, where he became acquainted with the Brock women’s volleyball coach, Dale Melnick, who happened to be looking for an assistant coach.
It was the perfect opportunity to dive back into the sport.
“That was a great experience last year –I learned a lot,” said Stone of his time as an assistant coach at Brock. “It gave me the itch to play again, and that’s why I’m here.”
Wanting to finish his educational path, Stone contacted coach of the Niagara Knight’s men’s volleyball team Nathan Groenveld to see if there might be a spot for him on his team.
When he got the feedback he needed, Stone jumped at the opportunity to come out of volleyball retirement.
Studying Recreation and Leisure at the college, Stone has another year of volleyball ahead of him here, and hopes to use the opportunity to propel his career after graduation.
“I knew playing for Nate would be a good experience just because of his experience playing at the national and professional level and coaching at the national level. I knew I could learn a lot from him and it would look good on my resumé.”
After graduation next year, Stone hopes to be involved coaching volleyball at the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association (OCAA) or Ontario University Athletics (OUA) level, but knowing that his next season may be his last as a player, his focused is on becoming a better player.
“Watching the other setters at nationals, there are a lot of guys better than I am,”said Stone modestly. “It makes me hungry for more, because I know I’m a capable athlete.”
Knowing that a lot of his heavy hitters will be leaving, Stone proposes that improving his assist-per-set ratio will be his personal goal for next season.
Still expecting the team to medal at provincials next year, a lot of the team’s success will depend on the performance of this six-foot two-inch setter.
Stone is confident the provincial and national medals of this past season will draw in some talented players from around the country.
Knowing they’ll be playing with the type of leadership the experienced Stone brings should only help that case.
“You’re always lucky to have someone come back who’s given you success in the past,”said Varga, who regrets not being able to return himself. “He doesn’t just want what’s best for him, but what’s going to benefit everyone else, and that’s important for this program.”