By Bill Buckingham
With the U.S. High School Championship’s doubling in size over the past three years, the rapid growth of the U.S. Middle School Team Championships (nearly 30 teams competing in only its second year) and the explosion in popularity of collegiate squash, both experienced junior players and tournament novices alike are being exposed to an overall more rewarding aspect of the sport. The concept of “team” in an individual sport like squash will only help the growth of the sport as the younger players competing now will go on after college and continue playing in city team leagues, where the ground to grow the game at the adult level is most fertile.
While it may have been difficult to keep track of all that was going on at the cacophonous symphony of squash that was the 2009 U.S. High School Team Championships, what with a staggering 102 teams and over 800 players competing at three venues (Yale, Choate Rosemary Hall and Trinity College), the largest squash tournament in the world once again provided competitors and fans alike with three days of non-stop squash action. From the regal green and gold of Greenwich Academy (CT) to the home made tie-dyed tee shirts of Milton Academy (MA), there was a brand and look of squash for everyone. While Episcopal Academy Boys and the aforementioned GA Girls came out on top in the Division 1 Boys’ and Girls’ Draws respectively, the true winner was team squash, as the High School Championships drew schools from 16 states, including California.
For Lancaster Country Day (PA) Coach Trex Proffitt, the U.S. Middle and High School Championships were somewhat of a homecoming. Proffitt picked up squash while attending Yale, learning the game from clinics given by longtime Yale Squash coach Dave Talbott. Proffitt, currently a professor at Franklin & Marshall (F&M) in Lancaster with a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior, see’s the benefit of team squash every day. His middle and high school programs, while only two years old, have shown great progress over a short period of time, fielding both girls and boys teams for the U.S. Middle Schools and High School Championships. The boys and girls squads travel together, making trips to clubs such as Meadow Mill Athletic Club in Baltimore to play round robin events with area schools. Proffitt notes that such trips galvanize the team mentality and have a valid social benefit for the players (witness Elizabeth Renner competing for the boys team at Middle Schools). LCD’s boys team managed to come away with two wins at the Middle Schools while the girls team took two Division III matches to finish fifth in their U.S. High School Team Championship debut. While having no courts of their own, LCD is able to benefit from the open door policy at F&M to get court time for his players. According to their coach, LCD, along with the college, have made a commitment to growing the sport in Lancaster, with their eyes on building a larger facility that will put the area on the national squash map. With that kind of support, one doesn’t need to be a “prophet” to visualize the teams from Lancaster Country Day competing at the highest levels in the very near future.
Jason Michas has been a junior squash tournament player since 2003 and is currently ranked 8th in the Boys U19 division. Although Jason had competed in the U.S. Team Championships (5-Mans), he had never been able to compete in the U.S. High School Championships because his school, Collegiate, in New York City, does not have a Squash program. In his last year before heading off to college, Michas took matters into his own hands. After speaking with U.S. SQUASH Director of Junior Development Conor O’Malley, the next task was assembling a team. Michas, along with classmates Scott Chapin and Tyler Conroy, all competitive junior players, formed a strong nucleus at the top of the lineup. With the seven player format, the bottom part of the ladder often proves more important since each match counts the same. To that end, Michas recruited his younger brother Gordon, to play in the fourth position. The roster was filled out by three young and relatively inexperienced players, Michael Savarese, James Fisch and Jack Harvey.
His team intact, Michas then approached the administration at Collegiate to discuss options for participating in the event. According to Eric Fountain, a faculty member at Collegiate recruited to act as team chaperone, everyone at the school was impressed by Michas’ doggedness in overcoming all of the “red tape,” such as permission slips, transportation and liability waivers, etc, that often deter adults from such endeavors, never mind a high school senior. Michas, quick to learn the advantage of working with an institution, looked inward for financial assistance. Targeting the school’s student government activity fund, typically set aside for activities such as the chess and debate clubs, he applied for, and received, a grant to purchase uniforms for the team (Michas designed the uniforms himself). With players sharing the rest of the tournament expenses, they made their way to New Haven. For most of the squad, it was their first tournament experience as a team. Not knowing what to expect as far as competition, they finished 7th in the very competitive Division II with a 3-2 record, including a stirring 4-3 win over Shipley (PA). With the Collegiate team on its feet, Michas’ younger brother Gordon stormed back from 10-6 down in the fifth game to take the deciding match to secure the win. The raucous celebration with his teammates gave Jason not only the satisfaction of knowing what one can accomplish, despite their age, but also a brief glimpse into what lies ahead as he prepares for team squash at the college level. Meanwhile, Fountain, who saw firsthand the impressive nature of the tournament envisioned a much bigger picture. “With the positive reaction of the parents and faculty at Collegiate, what Jason and his teammates experienced at the U.S. High School Team Championships is sure to be a building block for a future squash program at the school”.
In The Land of the Giants
Philadelphia is arguably the cradle of junior squash in the United States. Middle and High School programs are abundant and the quality of play is high. Many of the schools have their own facilities, and top collegiate programs know they only need to travel down to the Main Line when it comes time to restock their programs with the nation’s top players. All four 2008 U.S. Junior Men’s Team players were from Philadelphia. Boys and Girls teams from Schools such as Episcopal Academy and Penn Charter have captured at least one Division 1 National Championship in the past four years (this year’s Episcopal boys team made it three in a row for Philly as they steamrolled through the boys’ draw) and former players can be found on nearly every college roster. So where does that leave Conestoga High School, a public school located 15 miles northwest of Philadelphia in Berwyn, PA? According to Heidi Sproat, President of the “Irish Road Squash Club” (CHS official title), it puts the second year program right where they want to be. With 20 boys and 17 girls on the varsity squad this season (they also field a 12 player JV squad) Conestoga became only the third public school to participate in the High School Championships, joining Darien High School (CT) and Rye High School (NY). With a grant from U.S. SQUASH and school funding, Conestoga, led by 2008 USOC Squash Developmental Coach of the Year Cam Hopkins, the former squash coach at Rye Country Day School (NY), is able to get ten hours of court time a week at the Berwyn Squash Club, where they also work with head pro Dominic Hughes. Although only four players on the team compete individually in junior events, Conestoga played impressively at the High School Championships, losing tight matches to established programs from St.Georges (RI) and Poly Prep (NY) before downing fellow public school entry Rye High School. Sproat, whose son Keith, a convert from racquetball, is a senior on the team, was astounded by the sheer number of participants, and “absolutely mesmerized” by the level of athleticism on display at the tournament. “The turnaround in some of the games I watched was incredible… you blink, you miss”.
While the 2009 U.S. High School and Middle School Championships may have set the bar for future events, there is no end in sight for the growth of team squash. In the not so distant future, don’t be surprised to see schools such as Lancaster Country Day, The Collegiate School and Conestoga High School at Center Court on Sunday afternoon looking to wrest away national supremacy from one of the traditional scholastic powerhouses. With the popularity of these championships, and new school programs emerging at such a rapid pace, it’s inevitable. Don’t blink, you may miss it.