The cream always rises is a term that has countless applications, but none truer than at Mary Baldwin College. Located on hillside of Staunton, in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley, this small college for women offers an educational opportunity unique among American institutions of higher learning.
Each year since 1985, the staff of PEG—Program for Exceptionally Gifted—has applied rigorous academic standards in the selection process of a small, precocious group of students from across the country (and sometimes even other countries) for their program. Those who are accepted into PEG are housed in special boarding house-like living quarters known simply as “the PEG dorm.” Inhabitants have round-the-clock adult supervision, must sign out and in when leaving and upon returning to their dorm, observe strict in-house rules—among them being mandatory study hours, a curfew, etc.—and maintain stringent academic and interpersonal accountability.
Why all the fuss? Because these students are as young as 12—the average age of those entering is about 15--and for the vast majority, it is their first time living away from home. Let’s revisit that number; they are full-time college students at an age when other girls—at best—would be entering high school. In other words, they skip all or part of high school. Despite a thorough search, you will probably find that no other college in America, not even those in the Ivy League, will accept a full-time residential student at so tender an age.
In 2010, when the family Stone first investigated early college, Sophia was in the process of completing her first year at Palisades Charter High School, in Los Angeles. Her father, Jeff Stone, made the initial inquiries.
“It was clear that Sophia, as a freshman in high school, was doing very well, but we were looking for challenges,” the hospital anesthesiologist explained in a telephone conversation. “I looked at quite a few programs. The ones that I saw were either too new, or in an urban environment. Mary Baldwin was a small school. The school had a long history, the program was mature, and the staff supportive. I was comfortable with the security, and that they lived in a supervised dorm. “We talked to the admissions people at Mary Baldwin, and also two families with kids in PEG at the time.”
“My father found out about Mary Baldwin,” said Sophia, “and introduced me to it. The PEG program allows you to take college classes, but not only that, you are immersed in the college environment; you are a college student.”
So, halfway between her sixteenth and seventeenth birthday, an age when most girls haven’t even taken their SATs, Sophia joined a bright, but nervous, group of 25 college “freshmen” in front of the PEG dorm for the traditional, first day group shot. Next came settling in to dorm life, registering for classes, and finding a social niche hundreds, if not thousands of miles from home. That was the easy part.
One of Sophia’s first decisions was to join the “Fighting Squirrels” cross country team. (If an image of their mascot does not exactly strike fear into the hearts of those reading this, I should warn you that MBC squirrels have mastered the strategy of the “pack attack.”)
“In high school, I joined the track team my freshman year,” she told me. One of my friends asked me to join with her, but she ended up quitting.” From there “I ran cross country and track my sophomore year.”
“She ran at Palisades,” added her father.” Her times qualified for the City Championships, and she did okay.”
More than okay. In the fall of her sophomore year, Sophia was third in the LS Western League 3 mile finals with a time of 20:08.92 (her team placed 1-3-4-5-8 to win), and in spring she won the freshman/sophomore 3200—by .02-- in 11:45.11.
(At that time) “I did realize that I could run, and was serious about getting a run in every day. I did the workouts that my coach, Ron Brumel, gave me. But I didn’t know how much I could improve, and how I could expand upon it by running more.”
“When she applied to Mary Baldwin, we encouraged her to go out for cross country,” said her father.
“Sophia came in at 16 and did well her freshman year,” added her MBC coach, Sharon Spalding. Running wise, in her freshman year she was always in the top 10% of the races, but never the winner. She was an all South-Southeast Region Runner. You have to be in the top 35 to do that.”
Sophia ran the Shelby Farms Park, Memphis 6K—a little under 3.73 miles--course in 23:14, finishing 23rd of 156.
Stone was enthusiastic enough about her regional race, that the summer before her second year, she began training harder. The increase in her mileage, however, resulted in an injury, and she was forced to pull back and cross train for a few weeks that summer.
“Last year”—as a sophomore—“she was a co-captain,” continued Spalding. She is growing more into her leadership role, and I have seen a big change.”
An understatement. As a 17 year old sophomore, going in to the 2011 NCAA Division III National Championships, her only loss was to Division II runner Rosie Mascoli in the mid-season Salisbury, Maryland Invitational, a race in which Sophia set the school 6K record of 21:17. After that, she won six straight, including the Conference USA South Championships (22:32.32; a course record for that 6K), and the USA South-Southeast Region Championships (in another course record, 22:10.10). Along the way, she earned three USA South Conference Runner of the Week awards, the USA South Conference Runner of the Year Award, and the South/Southwest Regional Runner of the Year Award.
And the D-3 National Championship?
“It was in Winneconne, Wisconsin, and cold!” she remembered. “At the start, there was some boxing out, and that forced me to run more conservatively. My first mile was about 5:40.
“There was a lot of energy and excitement out there. I heard some of the coaches for other teams calling off the places for their girls and I began to think that I could make it as an All-American.
“There were 280 in the race,” said her coach, “and she was 142nd after the first mile; at mile two, 78th; and at mile three, 47th. Coming in to the long finish, she was 33rd, and then passed two more. She averaged a 5:49 pace, and was pretty much right on that, and just kept passing people. One of the first things she said to me afterwards was “Coach, no one ever passed me.”
“I think only six girls ran a faster last ¾ mile, so I know that I had a lot in reserve,” added Stone.
In that final meet of 2011, Sophia finished 31st in 21:39.60. (The winner was Chiara Del Picolo, of Williams College, who ran the 6K in 20:52.10). In addition to earning All-American honors (top 35), she was also acknowledged as an Academic All American.
“I am majoring in biology and psychology. I have thought about a career in medicine but am also drawn to research and teaching. Being able to explore questions about life and its origins would mean leading a purposeful life, for me, contributing knowledge for future students and researchers.”
Her Dad adds, “I think Sophia’s ability to have a “laser focus” on her studies is the same as her focus on her running. As a father, I am very, very proud of what she has accomplished.”
That focus however, is facing ever forward, and she imagines what can be, rather than dwelling on what has already occurred.
“I’d like to find a way to close the gaps between my teammates. If the girl behind me can pull closer to me, she can encourage the girls behind her to do the same…like a pack of squirrels.”
(See, I warned you!)
“I’d like to leave Mary Baldwin with a stronger cross country program, one with a pride that shows you don’t have to belong to a Division 1 program to do well. And you don’t have to compromise one thing with another, such as academics and athletics. With such a small team—we have about ten or 11 this year—we have fun in our workouts, traveling and racing together. Our coach, Sharon Spalding, is a great person, leader, mentor, role model, and coach for us. She even made breakfast for us this morning.
“With all the hours we spend together, it’s all a lot bigger than our actual finish times, and will stay with us even after we graduate.”
“I think,” suggests her Dad, “given all the circumstances, that Mary Baldwin College has been the right place for her. She has grown as a student, as an athlete, and as a person. Let’s say that she had spent two more years in high school, and then gone on to college. I don’t know what would have happened, but I think it’s been a good place. She’s really blessed.”
“She is a great young woman, student and runner,” surmised Coach Spalding” Yes, I was excited with the times when she applied to Mary Baldwin, but it was because of her work ethic and enthusiasm that she has achieved great things.”
Note: In her first cross country race of the 2012 season, Sophia Stone won the Christopher Newport College Invitational (August 31st). Her 18:24.52 reestablished yet another 5K record at MBC, and earned a fourth USA South Conference Women’s XC Athlete of the Week award.