By Brooks Hatch
Lila Toner provided Oregon State volleyball fans with a tantalizing glimpse of her immense talents two years ago, when the talented outside hitter from Istanbul led the Beavers in hitting.
They should get the full, wide-screen, high-definition picture this fall, however. Now completely recovered from a seriously-sprained left ankle that hindered her throughout her sophomore season, the personable 6-foot-1 outside hitter is poised for a breakout fall.
“Everyone is in shape. I'm in shape, no more hurting,” she said recently. “Our season is going to be awesome.”
Toner is especially excited to play in Friday's Orange & Black Scrimmage, set for 7 p.m. at Gill Coliseum. She missed the annual intrasquad matchup - the final tune-up before the Aug. 28 season-opener against Wichita State at the University of Hawaii Tournament in Honolulu - the past two years.
“My freshman year (2013) I arrived late,” as she joined the team just several days before the season-opener at Villanova. “Last year I sprained my left ankle before the season,” was on crutches and unable to play, she said.
“This year I'm perfectly fine, not hurt, and am so excited for the Orange and Black scrimmage. It will be my first one.”
A healthy Toner should be a major addition to a club that returns many key components from last year's surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. She had a team-high 280 kills (2.75kpm) in 2013, had double-figure kills in 14 matches, and added 194 digs and 30 blocks.
She led the Beavers in kills in 13 of their 31 matches, had the most attacks in 18 matches, and earned honorable mention on the Pac-12 Conference All-Freshman team.
The ankle injury limited her to just 46 kills and 11 starts in 2014, however, and she never got healthy enough to be the impact player she'd been the year before.
“It was really frustrating,” she recalled. “It happened right before the season. I got out of shape and my game just fell down.
“The first thing [affected] was my jump serve; I couldn't jump and landing hurt. It was just hard to get back in shape,” and her confidence wavered.
This season, she's confident she can give the team everything she has, all six skills.
“My topspin jump serve is very good, 56 miles per hour, and I'm feeling very confident about it,” she said. “As a right-side hitter I feel really confident about that, too.”
OSU coach Terry Liskevych said a healthy Toner further strengthens an already-formidable position and gives the Beavers another effective option should opponents concentrate their defense on sophomore outside hitter Mary-Kate Marshall, the 2014 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and a third-team All-American.
“Lila can attack from the backcourt and frontcourt,” he said. “She was our No. 1 hitter in 2013. For her to join [junior] Katelyn Driscoll and our other outsides, [redshirt freshmen] Kory Cheshire and Lanesha Reagan, and [junior] Emilie Wilmes, that's a very strong position for us.
“She has a wicked jump serve. Usually if you are above 40 miles-per-hour you are good. She's had the fastest recorded serve here, so she could do some damage with that.
“She's a six-skill [attacking, setting, passing, defending, serving, blocking] and does them all well. Usually you have a player with two-to-three skills, but she's a complete player with a lot of experience and a high volleyball IQ.
“International players start playing a high-level of volleyball early; there is no high school volleyball” in their countries so they join clubs and compete with older, more-skilled players sooner.
Toner was destined to be an athlete. Her father, Munip, played for the Turkish National volleyball team and her mother, Irem, was a nationally-ranked runner for the Russian national program. She started playing volleyball at 8 years of age, joined the Ilbank Sports Club in 2011, and helped the Turkish Youth National Team to a gold medal at the 2012 European Championships.
However, she didn't decide to play collegiately in the United States until May of her senior year in high school. She sent tapes to a coaching friend in Illinois, who in turn contacted OSU assistant coach Emily Hiza.
That led to a unique recruitment, primarily by Skype.
“It was weird,” Toner said, recounting the complicated process. “I didn't speak English very well and my parents didn't at all. I would talk to the coaches, translate to my family, they would answer and I'd translate what they said to my parents.
“I asked a lot of questions. But I trusted the coaches, and here I am.”
Toner transitioned quickly to Oregon. She misses her family and only returns to Istanbul about 20 days over Christmas and 20 days when school ends in June. But her mother visits at least once a year and often stays for a month, so that helps.
Her biggest adjustment was to dorm food. It simply can't match the spicy meats, soups and deserts readily available in Turkey, where the intersection of European, Asian and Middle Eastern cultures makes for diverse menu not available in a campus dining hall.
Now that she lives off-campus, however, she has more choices and she's honed her culinary skills.
Istanbul is the largest city in Europe and the fifth-largest city in the world, with a metro-area population of approximately 14 million. That's about 280 times the size of Corvallis, which isn't even the fifth-biggest city in Oregon.
In Toner's case, though, bigger isn't necessarily better.
“Istanbul is so busy, people are everywhere,” she said. “Corvallis is so small, but I love it, it's the perfect college town.
“I feel like I know everybody and people are amazingly nice. They are always saying 'Hi!', even though they don't know me. I feel like I'm at home,” and she even enjoys the rainy winter weather.
Toner is majoring in psychology and human development and family science, and hopes to work in child psychology and family development, with a focus children with Down's syndrome.
“My parents broke up when I was eight, and I know how kids feel when their family life is not the best,” she said. “I want to help and volunteer with those kids as much as I can,” if she doesn't play professionally.
“If I play pro I have to go back to Turkey,” she said. “If I don't, I want to stay in America, and go to graduate school. In 10 years I hope to have a job, office and lots of children.”
Those decisions can wait. For the next two years, her focus is helping the Beavers earn the first back-to-back NCAA berths in program history, and being a great teammate and positive influence.
“She just has a great personality,” Liskevych said. “She's bubbly and effervescent, very vocal, and that's helpful.
“It helps us having Lila because she is worldly; her mom and dad are two different nationalities” and she's been exposed to numerous international cultures through her family and her long club and college career.
“It helps our team to have someone with a global personality. She's a great individual to have on the team, she's super.”