Mary Stoiana fell in love with tennis when she was 5 years old.
She was fascinated watching the ball sail from one racket over the net to the other racket and back again, bouncing on the court in between. It was mesmerizing, and she soon had dreams of becoming the best in the world.
Eleven years later, the Southbury native dedicated her life to the sport.
She stopped attending in-person school at Pomperaug High School and instead became home-schooled to allow more time for tennis. No more squeezing in lessons after school or missing classes from traveling to tournaments. Tennis became the priority.
Stoiana knew she wanted to be the best and knew what she needed to do to get there.
“Although you miss some big senior things, like prom and all that stuff, when I think about what I have instead, it really just makes it worth it for me,” she said.
For the past two years, Stoiana has spent at least a week every month on the road competing at out-of-state tennis tournaments. She competes against the top junior talent across the country and internationally with an overall singles record of 51-15. She’s ranked by Babolat as the No. 11 juniors player in the class of 2021 and the No. 1 player in New England and Connecticut. USTA ranks her as the No. 16 juniors player in America.
Her choice to jump into the sport full-heartedly became a lifestyle change, allowing the now-senior to have the career she’s always wanted, including the chance to play collegiately at Texas A&M next fall.
“It just kinda keeps unfolding into the path that she wanted,” said Mary’s mom, Kathleen Morrone. “I’m extremely proud of her and I’m not really surprised in any way because she loves what she’s doing.”
Her court beginnings
Stoiana built her passion for tennis playing against those older and more experienced.
She learned to play from watching her dad, Val Stoiana, teach her older brother, and she won her first tournament against opponents 2 to 3 years older than her. The constant disadvantage sparked a drive in her to always chase high levels of competition.
Mary Stoiana refused to play those her age or younger even when Val told her that her rankings would be higher if she stayed within her age group. Nothing changed Mary Stoiana’s mind, as she played older opponents all throughout her childhood.
“She played people who could be her babysitter,” said Morrone.
Despite repeatedly losing against the older opponents, she never gave up.
It taught Mary to be dominant and to stand up for herself. Her opponents didn’t like losing to someone so young and tried to cheat her out of points or disregard her skill. She learned how to confront them after questionable calls and when to get referees involved.
“It was definitely a challenge. Mary wound up playing a lot of defense,” Val said. “It’s definitely shaped her to be who she is right now. It just started with having to stand up for yourself, having to get the confidence to be in front of people.”
Mary’s schedule became crowded the more she became passionate about tennis. Her days consisted of going to class, doing homework, tennis lessons, competing in tournaments, teaching tennis to kids and playing the saxophone in the school band.
“She’s just one of those special people that she’s not gonna just go away and say, ‘Oh my God, this is too hard.’ Sure, she’ll be in her mind, but she’s very determined,” said Steve Rogers, Stoiana’s current coach. “She wants to succeed so much, she’s willing to take in the failures, willing to take in the successes, learn from both and keep moving forward.”
But after getting the taste of traveling and playing at prominent tournaments across the country, she knew she had to stand up for her passion and make a decision about her dedication to the sport.
From public school to home school and beyond
After winning the USTA New England Level 3 Sectional Championships in June 2019, Mary flew to her first out-of-state tournament: the USTA Girls’ 18 Clay Court National Championships in South Carolina.
She won eight of her 10 matches and finished seventh out of a 256-player draw. It was there coaches from Texas A&M first saw her.
Mary then flew across the country to San Diego to play the USTA Billie Jean King Girls’ 18 and Girls’ 16 National Championships. Despite finishing in the round of 128, Texas A&M was still impressed by her dedication to playing high-profile tournaments.
“Oftentimes when you’re watching recruits, so many of them kinda just all look the same, kinda like one-dimensional type players, and with Mary, I just kinda felt like she stood out from the pack in a way,” Aggies’ head coach Mark Weaver said. “It was a bit of a no-brainer that we wanted to offer her a scholarship.”
Stoiana was heading into her junior year at Pomperaug and found it difficult keeping up with schoolwork from missing most Mondays and Fridays from playing tournaments year-round. She knew if she wanted to continue being on college coaches’ radars, she needed to keep competing.
So, she made the decision that summer to switch to homeschooling, giving her more time and flexibility to travel and play tournaments.
“It’s just not possible any other way,” she said. “You have to be able to have your own schedule.”
Stoiana has since played in Mexico, Canada, California, Florida and Texas. She misses the social life of in-person school and said it’s often hard to self-discipline to do schoolwork, but she knows her passion for tennis matters most.
“When I think of why I’m doing the home school, which is so I have time to play tennis and compete in stuff, it gives me my motivation,” said Stoiana.
Stoiana and Morrone travel to out-of-state tournaments once every month for one to two weeks at a time.
It’s an expensive commitment with travel costs, Airbnb costs, rental car costs and entry fees for tournaments. Morrone put her interior design career on hold to help Stoiana pursue her tennis career.
The two spent three weeks in Mexico in February 2020 for a tournament and most recently traveled to Florida and Virginia in May.
“In hindsight, I didn’t realize what kind of lifestyle change it would be like,” Morrone said. “It sorta took on a life of its own. It just got bigger and bigger. … It’s like a lot of things in life, you just kinda fall into it and then you’re in it and then you’re just like, ‘Oh wow, here we are,’ and you keep going.”
Texas A&M offered Stoiana a full athletic scholarship including room and board, equipment and resources and stipend checks.
Stoiana, a five-star Blue Chip recruit according to Tennis Recruiting Network, committed to the program in September 2020 and helped boost the incoming class to the No. 2 ranking in the country.
“I definitely know I wouldn’t have been able to do that and get seen by them and acquire the rankings that I did in order to be recruited by Texas A&M with staying in public school,” Stoiana said. “It was definitely worth it.”
The home-school route has become popular with top high school tennis athletes within the last decade. Athletes are able to improve their skills while playing at prominent tournaments.
“You very rarely find a top recruit anymore that actually plays for their high school tennis team,” Weaver said. “With sports like football and basketball, they [coaches] hear they [the recruits] are playing for their high school’s team and that’s just kinda normal. For us, it’s almost the opposite.”
Stoiana trains six days a week for three to five hours each day, on top of cardio, agility and speed training.
In May, she won her first Grade 4 ITF Tournament at the World Tennis Tour Juniors in Florida, winning the singles and doubles title. Her goal is to become the No. 1 player in the world and “win many many Grand Slams.”
She knows this next step at Texas A&M will put her on that path.
“It’s a little stressful because my whole life is changing and I’m literally living so far away, but I can’t help but be excited because the amount of tennis I’ll get to play and the amount of resources I get access to, the new environment. This is what I want to do, so I’m super excited,” she said. “I have a lot of belief in myself and I’m pretty confident that I can make it to that level.”