By James Zug
Photos by Michael T. Bello
The night before the finals of the 2009 national intercollegiate team tournament, Paul Assaiante pulled Chris Binnie out of the No. 9 spot. The sophomore from Kingston, Jamaica, had some niggling injury to his hamstring, and more to the point, a crisis of confidence. He was a bit fragile, scared of the burden of playing in the finals against Princeton.
Two years later, Chris Binnie walked out onto the court to warm-up for his match in the finals of the national intercollegiates knowing that his team was tied 4-4 against Yale. That hardly ever happens, where the players in the crucial last match haven’t even begun to play when they learn that everything is riding on their match. In team squash play, nothing can rival the pressure.
It gets worse. Here was a kid who played No. 13 as a freshman now playing at No. 4 as a senior, a big leap for any program, let alone Trinity’s where the ladder takes as much movement as a tired sloth with a stomach ache. Worse, he was playing Ricky Dodd, a hard-nosed, very accomplished South African who had played No. 2 and No. 3 for much of the season. They had sparred a year ago at the nationals for the first time and Binnie had won, but by the slimmest of nailbiting margins: 12-14, 11-9, 11-8, 11-13, 11-9.
Instead of crumbling, Binnie rose to the occasion. Through mentoring and working together, Assaiante had built Binnie up. He had led him to discover deep reservoirs of confidence and helped him hit a rich vein of internal mental strength. Binnie played soccer all four years at Trinity, some as a goalkeeper and some as a striker, scoring goals as well as stopping them. His squash improved. He played No. 7 on the Bantam’s ladder as a junior. He won the Caribbean squash championships in 2009 and lost in the finals in 2010 (to Richard Chin). Also in the summer of 2010 he became the first Caribbean male to ever win a medal in squash singles when he got a bronze at the 21st Central America & Caribbean Games in Bogota. And he was tough in challenge matches. In a key one in January, he was down 9-1 in the fifth to fellow senior Randy Lim and came back to solidify his spot at No. 4 on the ladder.
The morning of the final, Binnie told Assaiante, “I hope there’s a really big crowd there this afternoon.” That was the sign of someone no longer scared of pressure.
Binnie gutted out a tense four-game victory, 11-9, 11-9, 9-11, 11-7. The match was really in doubt for much of the hour. Binnie won the first two games but he was uncharacteristically dropshotting. “Do I tell him to stop shooting?” Assaiante asked Reggie Schonborn, the Trinity assistant coach. They agreed to just tell him to do what he was already doing. It was working. Then Binnie dashed to a 8-2 lead in the fourth and the outcome was sealed.
With kind courtesy, he ushered Dodd off the court and then exited himself in the hopes of preventing a storming of the court. His teammates had other ideas and within seconds a mob of two dozen players were jumping up and down and swarming around Binnie at the front wall. Assaianate was standing outside the court, crying like a baby.
Later the team left Harvard and drove back to Hartford. They stopped when they got off Interstate 84 and in the old ritual danced around the highway sign that proclaimed, at the moment, “Trinity Squash National Champions 1999-2010.” Then they drove into the campus.
There in the parking lot was Manek Mathur, who had graduated two years earlier, along with dozens of other alums, family and friends. Mathur cranked up his stereo with the rock anthem: “Stand Up (For the Champions)” and then got out some bottles of sparkling cider. Within seconds, the entire team was soaked, spraying each other like they had won the World Series.
In a way, they had. They were the best collegiate team in the world. This was their 13th straight national title and 244th consecutive victory. It was also the seventh time since their last loss in February 1998 that they had eeked out a 5-4 victory. This was a nerve-wracking one. Yale had them pinned down 3-2 and 4-3. Then Johan Detter, younger brother of Gustav “Atlas Lives” Detter, steamrolled Ryan Dowd at No. 7 and it was left up to Binnie.
It was probably the hardest season yet for the Bantams. They suffered through injuries—No. 1 Vikram Malholtra had a pulled glute; Randy Lim had a tight hamstring; Andres Vargas had a balky back; and Binnie himself had sustained two concussions while playing soccer. James Montano, the unpaid volunteer assistant coach for the past twelve seasons, had left the team. Assaiante was dealing with unprecedented distractions: his bestselling memoir, Run to the Roar, came out just as the season started, and he was on a full book tour while coaching: he did more than thirty events across the country and dealt with numerous media requests, radio and television interviews, trailing reporters including a full day devoted to a New York Times Magazine photo shoot. And his wife Julia gave birth to a baby girl, Emma, on the day before New Year’s Eve.
In addition, four guys expected to be in the top nine weren’t on the team by the time February rolled around—various stories, but suffice it to say for the first time Trinity was going into their stretch run without their vaunted depth. That was why against Yale they lost at No. 8 and No.9, places that were automatic victories in years past.
Nonetheless, the “Bants” as they called themselves this year, ran off 20 wins and preserved their streak. Their motto came from a moment at Princeton. It had been a tough morning. Their van had broken down a couple of miles from Jadwin and Assaiante was calling friends to come pick up the players and shuttle them to the gym. Then the atmosphere in Jadwin was celebratory. “It felt like our guy’s were spooked, that the players and fans believed that today was the day the streak would end,” Assaiante remembered. He gathered his team and said, “We will lose. The streak will end.” Then he paused. “But not yet, not now.”
The only squash record still out there for Trinity is Harvard’s streak of fourteen straight national titles from 1923 through 1936. But the asterisk there is pretty huge—Harvard’s streak is comparable to a nineteenth-century baseball statistic. Intercollegiate squash wasn’t officially organized until 1931 for individual play and 1942 for team play, and in many years the Crimson only had two or three collegiate dual-matches. Yet under legendary coach Harry Cowles, they did go undefeated all fourteen of those seasons, a record that was long thought out of reach (the next best men’s streak before Trinity came along was six years in a row; for women it is five, by Harvard in the 1990s under Bill Doyle).
Assaiante isn’t sure the Bantams will be able to tie it. This team had five seniors in the top nine and 13 in their squad of 24, including the heart of their order, No. 2-5. Some new recruits are due to come in, especially Miled Zarazua, a Mexican hotshot. But replacing five warriors, men who survived three epic 5-4 dual-matches in their careers, is tricky.
His career record at Trinity is 307-14. That 14th loss came 5,000 days ago, back when the Monica Lewinsky affair was breaking, when a gallon of gas was $1.15, when Justin Bieber was three years old and when Titanic had not yet won 11 Oscars,
The 15th loss is coming some day, some year.
Not yet, not now.