Willow Johnson and Ronika Stone bring storied MLB and NFL family legacies to Oregon volleyball

UniqueThis 4 September 28, 2019
11:00 AM ET

Ronika Stone rarely accepts a second-place finish.

Her pinned tweet displays "survey results" crowning her the best Stone, edging her Washington State linebacker brother, R.J. But on the list of Oregon volleyball players whose fathers are famous athletes, Stone defers to teammate Willow Johnson.

"Her dad is way more famous than my dad," the Ducks middle blocker, a second-team All-American, says matter-of-factly.

Stone's father is no slouch. Ron Stone owns two Super Bowl rings and played in three Pro Bowls as a 6-foot-5, 325-pound offensive lineman. He was never a household name, though Ronika thought it was cool in elementary school when a pal disclosed putting her dad on his team for the "NFL Street" video game.

"Why couldn't you be a wide receiver?" Ronika would tease him. "People only know linemen when they make a mistake."

But Willow is the daughter of Randy Johnson. Yes, that Randy Johnson, the Big Unit. The Baseball Hall of Famer, five-time Cy Young Award winner and 10-time All Star who struck out 4,875 batters and famously killed one bird with a pitch.

Unlike Ronika, who is eager to hype her dad's resume whenever prompted, Willow is less overt.

"Some reporter was commenting on Willow's height and asked if her parents were tall, if they played any sports," Stone says.

"My dad was an athlete ..." Willow responded. "He played baseball."

"Her dad's Randy Johnson!" Stone interrupted.

And, yeah, he's 6-foot-10.

An honorable mention All-American, Willow Johnson says the desire early on to make a name for herself prevented her from revealing too many details about her bloodlines.

"I shied away from it," says Willow, whose younger sister, Lexi, played one year at Indiana in 2018. "I wouldn't say it was a struggle, but now I'm accepting of who my dad is. To me, he's always been just my dad. Now I understand the questions."

As for Randy Johnson, he stresses Willow's accomplishments reflect her commitment to the sport she fell in love with in fourth grade.

"This is all about her. She's put in the work," he says. "I just want to sit in a corner and blend in and enjoy watching my child do what she loves to do."

Ronika Stone, of San Jose, California, and Willow Johnson, from Paradise Valley, Arizona, were youngsters in the waning days of their fathers' playing careers. Stone scoffed at her dad's office in their old house, filled with jerseys from the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, his four stops during a 13-year NFL career.

"Is this a shrine?" she would joke.

Willow's most vivid memories date back to hanging out in the kids' zone during Randy Johnson's Arizona Diamondback days. The exception is her poignant recollection of his 300th career victory.

"I actually cried because I was so happy for him," she says. "I was so proud of my dad getting that far and accomplishing his goals. Now it's the opposite spectrum where he wants me to accomplish my goals."

Stone, 6-foot-2, and Johnson, 6-3, credit their dads for their height. Oregon coach Matt Ulmer touts another advantage of having players whose parents were elite athletes.

"It's a perk, really," he says. "The families and the players understand the expectations. It's not just part of their life; it's what they do, who they are. They both act like this is their living. This is what they're meant to do. They're pros themselves."

Another bonus, says Ulmer: Randy Johnson might have hit the bird, but "Willow's got the million-dollar arm in this sport," he says. "It's so unique. Most people's arms are pretty stiff. It's unreal, the amount of speed she can generate at different angles with her arm. It's hard to simulate."

As for Stone: "She's no mess. She wants to be great," Ulmer says. "If she has to step on you to get it done, she has to step on you to get it done."

"I was so proud of my dad getting that far and accomplishing his goals. Now it's the opposite spectrum where he wants me to accomplish my goals." Willow Johnson

The seniors acknowledge the ingrained mentality that stems from growing up daughters of standout pro athletes. As a freshman and sophomore, Johnson relied on superstition to the point of it becoming a crutch.

"I had to have the same hairstyle for every game," she says. "It got to the point where I was overthinking."

Now instead of ritual, Johnson favors positive self-talk and on-court aggression to make a statement. She uses the term "badass" to embrace the persona she has adopted as a collegiate volleyball player on a top-25 team. The footage she has watched and rewatched of her dad might have rubbed off.

"There's videos of my dad striking people out and he'd be screaming," she says. "He looks really scary. Now when I smash the ball straight down, I'm screaming in the middle of the huddle. I'm like my dad. I block someone, and I scream and go crazy. My dad was super competitive and so am I."

Neither Stone nor Johnson envisioned Oregon's 5-6 record with defending national champion Stanford awaiting on Friday. A year ago, the Ducks eliminated Minnesota on its home floor in the Sweet 16, a match that included a 41-39 second set won by Oregon.

Advancing to the regional final raised the bar for this season, as did a preseason No. 11 ranking. After a 2-0 start, the pumped Ducks embarked on a three-game road trip against nationally ranked Pitt, Minnesota and Penn State.

Then Johnson slipped in the fourth set against the Panthers. Stone nearly broke down hearing her teammate screaming from what turned out to be a right ankle sprain. The Ducks lost that four-setter and got swept in the Big Ten/Pac 12 Challenge with Johnson sidelined.

"It was going to be a great start to the season and the timing of everything was awful," says Johnson, who returned to the lineup on Sept. 20. "I had just rehabbed my left ankle after surgery in January and was feeling really great. I have so many personal goals and team goals this year. I want us to do great. The fact that this happened really frustrated me."

Both understand setback as part of sport. They recognize a volleyball season can be full of highs and lows, particularly on a team as youthful as Oregon, which starts four freshmen and a sophomore.

Their goals haven't changed. Coming so close to the final four created a hunger, Stone says, to achieve those heights and beyond. As seniors, there's an urgency the underclassmen can't relate to, Johnson adds.

Ulmer relies on Johnson and Stone as much for their leadership as their technical skills.

"If I'm doing my job, and my job is doing all the things I can control -- talk effort, attitude -- and if I'm doing my physical job -- putting balls away, blocking balls, digging balls, serving aggressively for my teammates -- then they can only follow," Johnson says. "Ronika and I have talked about it, and if everyone else sees us going hard all the time, they're going to want to go hard all the time."

Sunday's upset of No. 18 Utah gave the Ducks their first Pac-12 victory, a game in which Johnson and Stone produced huge numbers from the jump when they combined on the opening block. Johnson finished with 18 kills, a career-best five aces and 13 digs, including the crucial defensive point to set up match point. Stone hit .300, securing the match with her 16th kill of the afternoon.

"We really needed this, to remember how it felt, to remember that we can do it," Stone said afterward.

No matter the score, she repeats to herself, "Do your job all the time." That's a mantra her father offered in talking to her about some of the frustrations of the last month.

"He knows where I'm at, and he knows how bad I want it," Stone says. "He reminds me to not change even if the situations has.

"Maybe I did learn something from my dad's playing after all."

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