By Anne Bello
By Sunday afternoon, most of the teams competing in the 2010 Women’s National Team Championships had finished their matches and had left to catch flights home or make the long drives back to campus. Many of the fans who had stayed at Yale’s Brady Squash Center for the final were watching the action on exhibition courts 1 and 3. But on court 2, drama was unfolding in the number 8 match as two seniors—Harvard’s Katherine O’Donnell and Penn’s Christina Matthias—were determined to make the most of their final Howe Cup.
Harvard had come into the tournament as the top seed. The Crimson women had returned all the starting players from the 2009 squad that nearly won last season’s national title over Princeton. With the addition of a number of talented first-year players, Harvard had been unstoppable, going undefeated and winning the Ivy League title.
The Penn women had had an impressive season of their own. They had only two losses in the regular season: a 4-5 loss to Trinity they reversed in a thrilling semifinal match the day before, and a 1-8 loss to Harvard in early February.
On paper, it looked like Harvard would cruise to the title, but the Penn women weren’t about to give in. The Quakers’ Pia Trikha defeated Bethan Williams in three competitive games at number nine, and Britt Hebden at four and Nabilla Ariffin at two pushed Harvard co-captain Johanna Snyder and Nirasha Gurgue to four games each. At number five, first-year players Yarden Odinak of Penn and Natasha Kingshott of Harvard traded games until Kingshott won out in the fifth. With wins from Snyder, Gurgue, Kingshott, and June Tiong at number 3, Harvard nearly had enough matches to clinch the title. Matthias was doing her best to keep that from happening.
O’Donnell, Snyder’s co-captain, had won the first two games of the number 8 match 11-8, 11-9. Matthias came back to take the next two 11-8, 11-5. As they entered the fifth game, Alisha Mashruwala and Rachael Goh were in the midst of another five-game battle at number 4. Could Penn pull off an upset?
With her teammates cheering her on, O’Donnell surged back to take the fifth game decisively, winning 11-3. Laughing and crying and hugging, the Harvard players swarmed O’Donnell, filling the narrow hallway outside of court 2. There were a few matches left to be played, but Harvard had done it. After coming so close the year before, they had won their first Howe Cup since 2001.
In all likelihood, that joyous courtside celebration will not be the enduring image of the 2010 Men’s and Women’s National Team Championships. Few people were left to see the Harvard players’ delight or the Penn players’ graciousness in hard-fought defeat. Instead, the lasting image will probably be that of Baset Chaudhry screaming at Kenny Chan after Chaudhry’s win clinched Trinity’s twelfth national title. Footage of that incident was dissected on SportsCenter and circulated on the Internet, and for many people that has been the dominant story of the 2009–2010 college squash season.
But of those two moments, the Harvard women’s joy is much more representative of the men’s and women’s championships. Sixty-two men’s and 39 women’s teams competed for 14 division titles over two weekends at Yale University, Wesleyan University, and Choate Rosemary Hall. Out of the thousands of matches that were played over the course of the season, there were only a handful of conduct issues. The College Squash Association is viewing the Chaudhry-Chan incident as an opportunity to examine sportsmanship. The Women’s CSA has drafted a new code of conduct, which the Men’s CSA is planning to adopt, and the CSA as a whole is exploring ways to better educate players as referees.
And out of those thousands of matches there were countless positive moments that didn’t get national media attention but were no less significant to the players, coaches, and fans involved. Of the fourteen division titles, five were decided 5-4 and three others, including the two “A” Division finals, were decided 6-3. The men’s Chaffee Cup (“E” Division) came down to the final match, with Kenyon’s Michael Shea and California’s Ben Seeling going to five games. When Shea won 11-5 in the fifth, he shook Seeling’s hand and then was surrounded by his teammates, who had rushed on court to celebrate.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of college squash, whether you’re watching top-level players competing on an exhibition court or club teams playing for a lower division title. Watching his daughter go ahead 11-10 in the fifth game of her match in the “C” Division finals, one father punched his fist in the air and yelled, “It’s worth it! That makes the tuition worth it!” When the cheering died down and play resumed, he turned to the spectators standing around him and said, somewhat sheepishly, “Well, maybe not the whole tuition.”
Maybe not. But the parents and fans who packed the Brady Squash Center did see some great squash. Host team Yale put up some of the most exciting matches of both weekends. The Yale women brought the crowd to their feet with a 6-3 upset of defending national champions Princeton in the quarterfinals. A busload of Rochester fans traveled from New York to watch their team take on the Yale men in the semifinals, and the standing room-only crowd was treated to a contest that came down to the wire.
A year earlier Rochester’s upset win in the quarterfinals had knocked Yale out of the main draw, and the Bulldogs were ready to avenge that loss. The two teams came into the final round of this year’s semifinal tied 3-3. The Bulldogs went up 4-3 with Richard Dodd’s convincing 3-0 win over Joe Chapman at number 7, and they sealed the match with Hywel Robinson’s come-from-behind 3-1 win over Andres Duany at number 4.
After the semifinals, it seemed like the men’s final might be anti-climatic. After all, Trinity had defeated Yale 8-1 in late January. And Trinity, of course, was riding a 223-match winning streak, the longest in the history of US varsity intercollegiate sports. The Bantams came into the tournament as the top seed and had passed through the first round with relative ease, defeating the University of Western Ontario 8-1. Trinity’s semifinal match was a different story, as they faced the Princeton University Tigers, who had come within points of ending the Bantams’ streak in last season’s final.
Due to the graduation of several key players and a string of injuries, Princeton has not been as competitive this season, but the Tigers came into the semifinal match ready to prove their strength. Princeton went up 2-1 after the first round of matches, with Chris Callis defeating Supreet Singh at number three and David Pena securing a dramatic victory over Antonio Salas at six. Trinity came back to sweep the next round of matches, as Randy Lim hung on to win in five games over Princeton senior Santiago Imberton at number five. With the match score at 4-2, Princeton needed to win the final three matches. Despite some close games, Trinity won the match 7-2 and was on to the final, set to face Yale.
With the home fans cheering them on, the Bulldogs put up a fight, showing the toughness and spirit that drove their considerable improvement this season. Robinson at four and John Roberts at five both won their matches in four games for Yale. The Bulldogs’ C. J. Plimpton won in five at number nine, and Dodd nearly did the same, pushing Trinity’s Chris Binnie through the final points in a marathon five-gamer: 12-14, 14-12, 11-9, 10-12, 11-8. In the end, though, Trinity’s streak remained unbroken as Chaudhry’s go-ahead win locked the Bantams’ twelfth national title in a row.
As long as the streak continues, Trinity’s narrative will be a dominant one of college squash. But it’s never been the only story, nor is what happened between Chaudhry and Chan the only story of this season—or of these two young men, for that matter.
What moments like the Harvard and Kenyon teams’ celebrations, the father’s pride in his daughter’s performance, and the fans chanting and cheering for their teams show is the energy and emotion that makes the college game so compelling and so alive. This season has exposed issues of sportsmanship that need to be addressed, and the CSA is taking action. But this season has also highlighted the best parts of college squash. With new teams forming and old rivalries rekindling, the 2010–2011 season looks to be a good one. We’ll see you then!