By TJ Dembinski
Qatar. This was the site of the World Junior Championships in 2012 and, throughout the 2011- 12 squash season, the destination that many of us in the under-19s hoped would be our future. We all entertained fantasies that we would be selected to represent the United States on a world stage. And finally, after the Playoff at Williams College, the team was announced. It consisted of Dylan Murray, Edward Columbia, myself, and Devin McLaughlin. Additionally, Mason Ripka and Liam Mc- Clintock were brought to play in the individual event. After the announcement, visions of glory began to dance in our heads and the training began.
Just one month after the playoff, we convened as a team for our first training squad in Philadelphia. Germantown Cricket Club and Penn Charter School generously hosted us, and we were coached by the always superb Junior National Coach, Adam Hamill. After the initial squad, we continued to meet and train as a team every other weekend. Venues such as Westchester Country Club and the University Club in Boston hosted us, and allowed us to prepare and ready ourselves more than any US Junior Team had before. This grueling and intense training period concluded after a weeklong camp at Drexel University. Throughout this process, we were lucky to get input from some of the most respected coaches as our training squads moved from venue to venue, including Damon Leedale-Brown, Lee Witham, John White and, at multiple squads, Scott Devoy.
Our preparations complete, the team gathered at and traveled from JFK on July 1—destination Doha, Qatar. After about 20 hours of travel we arrived in the Middle East (minus our luggage that got left in the Frankfurt Airport). Eventually, though, our bags arrived in Qatar, and we began our last few preparations before the event.
For the final few days leading up to the first round we trained, relaxed, and readied ourselves. We had two hard days of training and then rested our bodies before the competition began. As the individual event approached, everyone seemed to share the combination of nerves and eagerness.
The first round matches began on Saturday, with Devin, Dylan, and Liam the first US players on. Devin and Dylan both played well and easily defeated their opponents without the loss of a game. Liam was the only US player to draw a seed in the first round— playingRyosei Kobayashi, a member of the Japanese team that we would get to know too well. Liam played well, but found Kobayashi to be too solid, and eventually succumbed in a hard-fought three games. Mason and I were the next two players on court. Mason played extremely well, defeating a very good German with ease, while I played Remo Handl from Switzerland and also won in three. Edward Columbia was scheduled to play an Aussie, but, bizarrely, the player never showed up to the event. The first day proved to be one of the most successful days in US Junior Boys Squash history, with five of the six US players making it through to the second round. Although we all wanted to celebrate afterwards, we knew we had to maintain our focus and prepare ourselves for what promised to be a day of tough second round matches B u t the success that we enjoyed after the first round was soon met with disappointment. Edward played great squash, but eventually lost out to England’s No. 1 Oliver Holland in four intense and physical games. Devin also played remarkable squash but, he too, yielded to the No. 1 Kuwaiti, Yousef Saleh. I then played another No. 1—Brazilian, Josemar Silva—and lost in a long and exhausting five games. Dylan played the No. 1 Colombian, Juan Vargas, and lost in a tough three games. Mason had by far the most difficult match, drawing Danish Atlas Kahn, the ¾ seed from Pakistan (who later withdrew from the tournament claiming an injury though rumors swirled about an issue with his age eligibility), and also lost in three. But Liam proved to be the lone bright spot of the day, beating his first opponent in the consolation. This was a difficult day for us, as the first round promised so much success.
Despite the second round disappointment, we rebounded well and started our runs in the consolation draws. Devin, Dylan, Mason, and I were all in the Classic Plate (the second round losers consolation), while Edward joined Liam in the Plate, (the first round losers draw because his round one opponent never showed up). Edward ended up reaching the quarters of that consolation, beating players from Guatemala, Iraq, and South Africa, only to eventually lose to a very strong Indian, Kush Kumar. Liam lost a tough four-gamer in the second round of that consolation to a solid Swede, Bjorn Angtoft.
In the Classic Plate, Devin won his first match against the French No. 2, but then lost to a very fit Hong Kong player, Yeung Ho Wai. Mason also won his first match against a Swiss player but then faced the No. 1 from Guatemala to whom he lost in five. Dylan made it to the quarters of the consolation, beating a South African and a Portuguese player before finally losing out to another strong player from Hong Kong, Ho Tze Ho. I made it to the semifinals of the consolation, defeating players from India, Brazil, and Colombia, only to fall to the same Hong Kong player Devin lost to, Hong Kong’s Yeung Ho Wai.
It proved to be a very successful individual event, with all of us having some strong wins and no bad losses. Because of our strong performances in both the main draw and consolations, we were given the No. 6 seed in the team event! After the seedings were announced, the groups came out. Guatemala, a very underrated Brazilian squad, and an always strong French team filled out our pool.
We eventually swept our pool without the loss of an individual match. But this wouldn’t have been possible had Dylan not won two matches 11-9 in the fifth—the first against the Brazilian No. 1 and the second against the French No. 1. Edward also won in five against the Guatemalan No. 1.
After winning our pool, we marched on to the round of 16 where we faced a solid Kuwaiti team in our first match. Dylan started the match off well with a 3-1 win, and then I clinched it with a 3-0 win. Since this was no longer Pool play, the teams could elect, by agreement, to forgo the third match once the outcome was decided.
In the quarters, we faced a very tough and talented England squad. We thought that if we played well, we would have a good shot at winning and, after watching some inspirational videos, we came out fired up. Edward was the first on, facing a very strong Richie Fallows. Edward fought hard, but Richie eventually won out in four. Then Dylan played Tom Ford, and lost in three. Though disappointing, England was much stronger than we anticipated, and so we now had to regroup for Japan the next day.
In the team competition, all teams play to position so the next match was to decide whether we would be playing in the 5/6 or the 7/8 round. We knew that Japan would be tough, but we had to beat them to live up to our seeding. Dylan went on first, but lost in a long and tense four games. Edward then played brilliant squash, simply overpowering his opponent in a quick three games. This meant that I would be playing the decider. I started off slowly in the first game, but then rebounded from a huge deficit to win the second. We traded the third and fourth games, so it came down to the fifth and deciding game. The Japanese player and I played a long fifth game, points being exchanged through 6-all, but he eventually won 11-7. Match 2-1 for Japan. It was a heartbreaking and emotionally draining loss for the team, but we now played Canada for 7th place.
Perhaps suffering from fatigue from the day before, we didn’t play our strongest squash. Devin, being fresh from not playing in the match the day before, came out strong and took the first match—an auspicious start. But Dylan then played a fit Canadian No. 1, and lost in five. This meant that we were now in our second decider in as many days—Edward playing Tyler Olson, a rising sophomore at Harvard. Edward played well and fought hard, but lost in a tight three games. The loss to our northern neighbors was perhaps not as bitter as the one the night before for a multitude of reasons, but it still stung.
Despite the three very difficult team matches that ended the tournament we left with our heads held high. It would have been a dream come true to have won every match, but the reality is that you win some and lose some, as heartbreaking as they sometimes are. What matters is that we prepared as well as we could have and left it all on the court. I know I speak also for Dylan, Edward, Devin, Liam and Mason when I say what an honor it was to represent the United States at Worlds. We will forever cherish the memories and friendships made in Qatar.
We are also grateful for the support of our families and the US Squash community, whether they were in Doha or following online. Many thanks to US SQUASH for investing so much in us and preparing us so thoroughly. And obviously we never could have performed so well without our two phenomenal coaches—Paul Assaiante and Adam Hamill.