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On Sunday, Texas sophomore Peyton Stearns (UTR Rating 11.49) etched her name in the record books by becoming the first player in program history to win the individual NCAA Championships. The 20-year-old captured the title with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Stanford's Connie Ma (11.03) on the heels of leading the Longhorns to the team NCAA title just one week prior.
Stearns is the first woman to win the NCAA team and singles title in the same season since Stanford's Nicole Gibbs won both in 2013. Stearns, a Universal Tennis ambassador, has set herself up for a big summer as she has officially turned pro.
Capping Off a Dominant Sophomore Season
One of Stearns' goals this season was to win every singles match, and she largely accomplished it. She finished her second season for Texas with a 33-2 overall record at the No. 1 position. Ma was Stearns' only regular-season loss (when Stanford defeated Texas in February) and her second loss came to then-No. 1-ranked Emma Navarro in the NCAA team quarterfinals.
Stearns dropped just two sets in six matches across the singles NCAA tournament, capped off with a straight-set win over Ma. When the post-season ITA Rankings were released on Thursday, Stearns officially finished her college career at No. 1. She was named the ITA Player of the Year and was selected as one of four finalists for the Class of 2022 Honda Sport Award for Tennis.
Leading the Team to Victory
Stearns led the Longhorns at No. 1 since stepping foot on campus in Austin in the fall of 2020. She put in extra hours of training to prepare for the possibility of playing the team final on a Sunday and starting the individual tournament on Monday.
“I've been preparing for the past month — honestly just a lot of cardio and not only off-court, on-court stuff physically and mentally as well because it's so hard to stay in those matches day after day after day,” Stearns said in April. “So it comes into practice, just like starting on Monday morning all the way to Saturday afternoon practices, every time I'm on the court, go at it, even if I'm not playing well.”
The scenario she trained for is exactly what happened as No. 4-seeded Texas defeated No. 2 seed Oklahoma, 4-1 on May 22, and Stearns was back on court on May 23. Oklahoma was seeking its first NCAA title in history and had strung together its best post-season ever.
After the Longhorns won the doubles point over the Sooners, Stearns dismissed Layne Sleeth 6-0,6-2. Stearns' teammate Allura Zamarripa clinched the title at No. 5. Stearns and Zamarripa competed in the doubles NCAA tournament, reaching the quarterfinals (NC State's Jaeda Daniel and Nell Miller would win the doubles crown).
With a 26-4 record in 2022, the Longhorns finish the season at No. 1 in the team rankings after winning their second straight team title and fourth overall. Texas joins Stanford and Florida as the only programs to successfully defend NCAA Division I women's tennis national championships since 1982.
Heading into a Big Summer
While the pro tour is calling her name, Stearns is a huge advocate for college tennis.
"It's a year or two to four out of your life; it's not that much," she said. "You have a support team in every aspect behind you. You have coaches, physios, all that good stuff, and you learn so much being on a team than what you would learn individually trying to go pro straight out of high school. I think it's great."
Stearns will head into the summer full of confidence and momentum, as she looks to boost her pro ranking. She has already found success on the pro tour, achieving a Top 400 WTA ranking and playing in the Western & Southern Open in her hometown of Mason, Ohio, as well as Indian Wells and the US Open.
Winners of the NCAA individual tournament are usually awarded main-draw wild cards into the US Open so Stearns has a lot more to look forward to.
Story updated on June 3, 2022