As her teammates and coaches congratulated her Sunday night at Klöckner Stadium, University of Virginia soccer standout Morgan Stearns couldn’t help wondering what all the fuss was about.
After leaving the locker room, Stearns turned to assistant coach Kerry Dziczkaniec, who works with the Cavaliers’ goalkeepers.
“We’re walking out,” Dziczkaniec recalled, “and she goes, ‘Kerry, I don’t get it. I get it, but what about the rest of the fourth-years? It’s partly their record too, isn’t it?’
Fourth-ranked Virginia’s 2-0 victory over George Mason on Sunday made Stearns, a four-year starter, the winningest goalkeeper in program history; she added another victory Thursday night as the Cavaliers posted their third straight shutout to open the season with a 4-0 win over Michigan State. With 57 career wins, she has two more than Chantel Jones, whom Stearns considers a mentor.
“I tell you, a lot of those games we don’t win unless Morgan makes that critical save at that critical point in the game,” UVA head coach Steve Swanson said. “You look at a 1-0 game or a 2-1 game, there may not be a lot of chances [for a keeper], but there are one or two where if you don’t make the save, you don’t win the game.
“Throughout her career Morgan’s been able to make those saves. I think the biggest thing this year is, I see her taking more of a leadership role on the team.”
From the time she was about 10, Stearns attended summer camps at UVA regularly, and her counselors along the way included Jones.
“I loved her and thought she was awesome,” Stearns said. “So I was like, ‘This is crazy, A, that I did this, and B, that it was her record.’ I didn’t think I could ever touch any of her records, because she was so good.”
Jones, whose final season at Virginia was 2011, saluted Stearns on Twitter.
“Congrats Morgan!” Jones wrote. “It wasn’t too long ago you were a summer camper. Time flies! #wahoowa @Stearnsanator.”
However much Stearns might think otherwise, her record is a big deal at UVA. So, for that matter, is Stearns herself. She’s distinguished herself on and off the field at Virginia.
“I think one thing about Morgan is, she was probably ready for college as a ninth-grader in high school,” Swanson said. “She’s got a real maturity about her.
“When you talk to Morgan, you’re always impressed with her. She’s got a good head on her shoulders.”
That has not escaped the notice of her peers. Unbeknownst to Stearns, a fellow student nominated her last year for the Gray-Carrington Scholarship, which honors the memory of former students Arthur P. “Pete” Gray IV and Edward C. Carrington Jr.
The UVA Alumni Association annually presents the scholarship – which covers tuition, room, boards and fees for one year – to a student who demonstrates exceptional personal integrity, achievement, leadership and humility.
In April, Stearns learned she’d been selected for the award from among seven finalists. Because she’s attending UVA on a soccer scholarship, she can save the Gray-Carrington benefits to use toward graduate work after this school year.
Stearns, 21, recalls her interview with the Gray-Carrington selection committee as “pretty intimidating.”
On either side of her at a large table sat Patricia Lampkin, UVA’s vice president and chief student affairs officer, and Allen Groves, UVA’s dean of students.
“And then it felt like 100 people – it was not that many; it was probably like 25 – but it just felt like so many people were firing questions at me,” said Stearns, who still doesn’t know who nominated her for the scholarship.
A UVA student who was on the Gray-Carrington selection committee interviewed Dziczkaniec early in the process. She told him about a recent game in which opposing players had taken cheap shots at the Cavaliers.
At one point during the match, with play stopped, Dziczkaniec said, “All you hear is Morgan Stearns going, ‘Can we just have some integrity here, people?’
“Instead of [retaliating], she just says, ‘Everybody take a breath. Let’s play with some integrity here. Let’s get it right.’ That’s just kind of who she is.”
That Stearns, who has 28 career shutouts, became a Wahoo was no surprise. Her parents, Chris and Laurel, are UVA alumni, and her paternal grandfather, Raymond Stearns, also graduated from Virginia. All were with her at Alumni Hall when Stearns received the Gray-Carrington Scholarship during an awards banquet in April.
“I think a big part of the award is love for the University, and some of what I have was sort of put into me by them,” Stearns said. “I think that’s what was so awesome about being the third generation to go here. Without those two groups of people before me to sort of pave that way, there’s no way that I would have had the same success on and off the field. So it was really cool.”
Raymond Stearns played lacrosse, among other sports, at UVA. Chris Stearns lettered four times in football for Hall of Fame coach George Welsh.
Morgan Stearns committed to UVA late in her sophomore year at Lake Braddock High School in Northern Virginia. Later that year, the family moved to San Antonio, Texas, where she attended Claudia Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson High School as a junior and senior. (Her parents have since moved to Colorado.)
Stearns made an immediate impact on the Cavaliers’ program. In 2013, she became the first true freshman in 13 years to start regularly in goal for the ’Hoos.
“She’s one of those goalkeepers who has a calming influence on the team,” Swanson said. “She’s been someone who’s always served the team.”
In 2014, Stearns played through a painful hip injury and earned a school-record 23 wins for a team that reached the NCAA title game for the first time in program history.
“This kind of goes to the character of who she is on a daily basis,” Dziczkaniec said. “She’s very tough. Her mentality is one of ‘I’m not going to let anything stop me from getting better.’”
The injury – a labral tear – required surgery in early 2015, and Stearns spent most of last summer diligently going through physical rehabilitation in Charlottesville.
She appeared in every game last fall, with 15 starts, as the Cavaliers went 19-1-3 and advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals. Stearns admits, though, that she labored at times coming off surgery.
“You can play on it and do fine when you come back, but it probably took a full year before I was like, ‘OK, now I feel great,’” Stearns said. “Which was nice going into this season, because I don’t even think about it, and it feels so much better.”
Swanson can see a difference in the 5-foot-10 Stearns, whose sister, Amber, plays soccer for Boston College.
“Morgan doesn’t have any health issues coming into this year,” Swanson said, “and I think she’s looked good from the very beginning.”
Dziczkaniec said: “She’s come back so much stronger, balanced in a way that allows her to move with great mobility.”
Stearns, a media studies major, stays busy off the field. She participates in the Sustained Dialogue and Greet Dot programs on Grounds. This summer, she was a student in the McIntire Business Institute, a program offered by UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce.
After graduation next spring, Stearns hopes to pursue a professional soccer career, whether it be in the United States or overseas. Several of her former UVA teammates, among them Morgan Brian, Danielle Colaprico and Makenzy Doniak, now play in the U.S.-based National Women’s Soccer League.
“I’m kind of going in with a little bit of an open mind in terms of what I want to do,” Stearns said. “There’s a lot of options. The sport has grown so much, and I’m so thankful that there have been so many people before us that have paved that way.”