5 min read
With the 2022 NCAA Championships set to begin, Peyton Stearns (UTR Rating 11.49) is doing everything she can to prepare. The Texas sophomore is ranked No. 2 in the ITA college rankings and will lead the Longhorns as they look to defend their 2021 title.
Leading the Longhorns
Stearns, a Universal Tennis ambassador since December, is enjoying a career-best season at the No. 1 position with a 23-1 record (the No. 3-ranked Longhorns are 20-4). In Big-12 conference play, Stearns went a perfect 8-0 and helped Texas win the Big-12 Championships.
The team defeated Iowa State, Oklahoma State, and No. 2-ranked Oklahoma for the program's 12th Big-12 title and second in a row. Stearns was named the Big-12 Player of the Year, the Big-12 Championships Most Outstanding Performer, and the Big-12 Individual Champion at No. 1 singles.
The Longhorns head to NCAAs on a six-match win streak, having won 13 of their last 14 matches. While last year, the team dropped just one match all season, this time around, they have a very different roster with five freshmen.
“Maybe some of us are complacent; we’ve already won it—it’s kind of like, we should win again,” Stearns said. “We actually got lectured by the coach
“And a lot of us like, snapped out of it and were like, shoot, we’ve got to win again, we’ve got to put the same effort in and all that.”
Managing a Loaded Schedule
While the team is a priority for Stearns, the 20-year-old has a lot more on her plate. She’ll be a favorite in the singles tournament, which begins the day after the four-day team event wraps on May 22.
Last year, after winning the team title, Stearns struggled to bounce back in time for the singles event, falling in the second round.
“I remember from last year, we played the finals, and the next day I had to play a singles match, and it was just brutal,” she said. “I was cramping all night, and I still somehow managed to win, but the next day, just couldn't pull through.”
The NCAA championship was formatted differently due to COVID-19, with teams competing in Orlando, Fla. This year, the top 16 seeded teams will host the first two rounds, and the Sweet 16 will take place in Champaign, Illinois.
“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. “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.”
Reaching for the Top
Stearns will also be in the NCAA Championship doubles tournament, as she and Allura Zamarripa are No. 11 in the ITA rankings. The Ohio native is used to having a busy schedule as she’s juggled pro events with her college career for the better part of two years now.
Last season, she played Cincinnati, the US Open, a WTA 125K in Colombus, and Indian Wells, learning a lot about what’s to come when she does turn pro. This year, she has competed in two ITF events and has plans to ramp up her pro appearances this summer.
But for the next few weeks, her focus is on leading her team to another NCAA victory. It’s a loaded role as she’s played at the No. 1 spot since stepping foot in Austin.
“When we’re playing a match, and if I'm neck and neck with the girl, it's like, everyone's looking at my school, and they're like, ‘Oh shoot, our No. 1 player is neck and neck with that girl’—they can freak out, or they can maybe step up,” Stearns said. “But if I'm cruising along like 4-1 in the first or they see me throwing ‘Come on’s!’ and all that, it's just like, OK, she's up there like I'm going to get up to that level as well.
“It's tough staying on that level the whole time, but I know I have to in order to allow the team to get to where they want to.”
She's done a great job of setting the tone, riding an 11-match win streak and dropping just one dual match, back in February. She has set her sights on another top position: No. 1 in the ITA rankings.
“It's never honestly been a goal of mine to be No. 1, but now that I'm so close, it's kind of like, 'Why not?'” Stearns said. “My goal was to win every single match this year… Being No. 1 or No. 2 will come with that so I think it's pretty cool that I’m No. 2. It's kind of exciting.”
The NCAA Team Championships draw will be released on May 2, with the first round beginning on May 6 at varied locations. The NCAA tournament from the quarterfinals to the championship match will take place May 19-22 at the University of Illinois in Champaign, followed by the individual singles and doubles tournaments.
* UTR Ratings as of May 2, 2022 at 9 a.m. EST.