By Jay D. Prince
Over the past six years, the US Junior Women’s Teams have been establishing a pattern of sorts. It started in 2001 when Michelle Quibell led the Americans to a first-ever top-four finish. Two years later, the US squad slipped to an eighth place finish behind the youthful Lily Lorentzen who was making her first appearance on the US Junior Team. Then, in 2005, the Americans rode the backs of their internationally-experienced top two, Lorentzen and Kristen Lange, to again climb back to a fourth place result.
This year, the American team was one of the youngest ever sent by US Squash to compete in the World Championships. Seeded eighth going in, the US team was spearheaded by Logan Greer playing at No. 1, the only one of the top three who will not be eligible to compete at another Worlds. But Olivia Blatchford, playing No. 2, will not only be eligible in 2009 but also in 2011, and Emily Park, perhaps one of the two strongest No. 3s at this year’s event, will also be eligible in 2009.
In all, US Squash sent a contingent of eight players to compete in the Championships. The top four (including Sarah Toomey) played in the individuals and the team event, while the next four played in only the individuals. And, for the first time, US Squash fully supported the team rather than requiring players to raise money on their own. “We sent eight players for the further development of the team,” said US Squash CEO Kevin Klipstein. “To a degree this was a building year, and four of the eight will be coming back. So we’re looking to be very competitive again in 2009.”
And this year’s team met expectations by living up to their No. 8 seeding. Though an extremely close match with New Zealand in the quarterfinals nearly vaulted the Americans to another top-four finish. “We kinda knew it would be really tough to match the team that went before us in 2005, so the realistic expectation was to finish in the top eight,” said Head Coach Jack Wyant. “And we hit it on the number, with a very close loss to New Zealand who finished third.”
While alluding to the individual event played during the first week, Wyant also commented, “We were a little bit of a victim of our own success by the time we got to teams. By that I mean Logan won the plate draw (for players who had lost their first match) and Olivia won the classic plate draw (for players who had won their first match but lost their second).” In the end, the experience gained by Greer and Blatchford by playing five more matches after falling out of the main draw should serve the team well in 2009, but the physical toll exacted on them may have been the difference against New Zealand. When New Zealand rested their No. 3, possibly overlooking the strength of Park, they suddenly found themselves in a hole when Park won the opener in five games after dropping the first two games. Greer was overmatched against Joelle King who had been a semifinalist in the individual event. But Blatchford stepped up and pushed the Kiwi No. 2, Kerry Wickett—who had reached the fourth round of the individuals—to the brink in the first game which Wickett won 10-8. From there Blatchford fought hard but fell in the next two 9-4, 9-3. “Olivia played extremely well,” said US Assistant Coach Meredeth Quick. “I think Wickett just stepped it up and was too tough on that day. But Olivia’s 14-years-old and was unbelievable. It was exciting.”
Despite falling to both England and Canada and finishing eighth, the US team served notice to the rest of the world that they will be very strong in two years. “I feel like this team has the ability and talent to far exceed what they did this year,” said Wyant with confidence. “I think top-four is a very real possibility. Emily Park was so strong at No. 3 this year, and Olivia is already a world-class player at her age. I don’t know if they could win it, but they will certainly be very strong.”
For now, the Junior Women’s Worlds are dominated by Egypt as Raneem El Weleily became the second player to win two Junior World titles, and the Egyptian team dropped just a single match in the entire event when the No. 3 from Australia won a meaningless dead-rubber (the team match had already been won when Egypt’s top-two swept the Aussies in a combined 47 minutes) in the first day of Pool Play.
Who knows, this year the teams that participated in Kowloon, just outside of Hong Kong, weathered a class-eight typhoon that lasted for two days. Might there be an American typhoon of junior players who make waves in 2009? With continued progress, it is looking good.