Upstate Upstarts: Rochester and St. Lawrence are Looking to Rock the Men’s College Squash Boat

By Bill Buckingham
Photos by Michael Bello

University of Rochester sophomore, Neil Cordell (L, in white), stepping up into the leadership void left by graduating captain Andres Dunay will be a key to the Yellowjacket’s success this season.

The wall of fame right outside the office of St. Lawrence University coach Chris Abplanalp, boasts plaques of former athletic stars, the most popular with the tour groups being a former wrestling standout (not to mention the top gladiator the school ever produced), By the name of Kirk Douglas. While the epic Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus may have been released in 1960, with two teams of upstarts from the northern reaches of New York State poised to take on the reigning empires of college squash, the movie’s theme is a familiar one this season.

Trinity. Princeton. Yale. Harvard. Finals. Sound familiar? If you follow college squash it should. Over the past fifteen years, the aformentioned schools are the only ones that have reached the finals of the Men’s Collegiate Squash Association Championship, with Princeton, in 2012, the only school able to loosen Trinity’s grip on the crown. However, those teams need only to look north to see the cold winds of change brewing at the top echelons of the CSA, with St. Lawrence and Rochester Universities poised to put their name on the Potter Trophy.

Rochester, having long boasted an Ivy-like reputation, with six Nobel Prize winners among its alumni and faculty, has been lurking in the shadows for the past few seasons, finishing as high as third in 2009. St. Lawrence, a traditional hockey power looking to add to their winter sport resume, has had a more meteoric rise, jumping from sixteenth place in 2010, to a party crashing sixth place finish in last season’s championships.

With strong recruiting classes and a wealth of returnees on both sides, it’s no surprise these two schools, separated by 200 miles and hours of wintry upstate terrain, are looking to bring their Liberty League rivalry to the national stage this season.

Rochester’s rise to prominence has coincided with the hiring of head coach Martin Heath, the former No. 4 player in the world who came aboard in 2005 when the team was ranked No. 28 in the country. Just three years later, in 2008, they had vaulted into the top-10 before loudly announcing their arrival as a program to be reckoned with for years to come when they upset Yale to finish third in 2009. With their strongest class in years, they now appear to be ready take that next step. Despite having a roster made up of freshmen and sophomores, coupled with the loss of their captain and No. 1 player Andres Dunay, Heath isn’t that concerned with his team handling the pressure of expectations this season. “Andres was one of the leaders, not only on the squash court, but also in team spirit. You try to make up for his loss in other ways and use the culture that he helped create to develop the new guys coming in.”

Heath’s team may be young, but they are seasoned. Incoming captain Neil Cordell, while only a sophomore, is twenty-three years old. “Neil has stepped in, and with the experience he brings comes such a calm approach in helping the other guys. In that way, Neil has taken over Dunay’s role.”

Despite a career at St. Lawrence that saw captain, Vir Seth drop from the upper end of the team’s roster to fighting to remain in the top-nine, his leadership has served to push for even higher expectations among his teammates.

Top recruits Ryosei Kobayashi, the No. 1 junior from Japan, and Mario Yanez of Mexico, are also no neophytes when it comes to the big stage.

“Ryosei has represented his country as No. 1, so he under- stands pressure. Though there is a different atmosphere in college squash, we have let both he and Mario know what to expect and told them to enjoy it, let it wash over them, and when they show that they can handle it, they will gain everyone’s respect.”

St. Lawrence may have snuck up on some teams last year, but after an historic run that included the Saints first-ever appearance in the Potter Trophy draw, head coach Abplanalp admits that his tenth season as head coach comes with a bit more pressure. With all nine players returning he sees his squad drawing on last years’ exposure to top-flight competition. “We had expectations last season, but we needed experience at that level. We have a little more talent this year and we feel we can play with the best teams in the country.”

With Trinity, Harvard, Yale, and, of course, Rochester, on the slate, Abplanalp’s squad won’t have to wait until February to see where they stand. “This is definitely by design,” says Abplanalp of the more difficult schedule. “We need to play at that pace and pressure before nationals, and for those few guys who were not around last year, seeing how competitive it is will certainly help.”

One of those new guys Abplanalp is referring to is Egyptian Moustafa Bayoumy, one of the top junior players in the world. Getting players of that caliber to come to what is decidedly not the hotbed of squash in the U.S. is becoming a bit easier for St. Lawrence. Last season, former junior World Champion (2010) Amr Khaled Khalifa took the collegiate squash world by storm, winning the CSA individual title by coming back from a 2-0 deficit in the semifinals to beat defending champion Ali Faraq (who was also the runner-up against Khalifa at the World Juniors in 2010) of Harvard, before dispatching top-seeded Todd Harrity of Princeton in the finals. Attracting players from nearby Canada has always been part of the culture at St. Lawrence, but it is now becoming a much greater international option where, according to the coach, “students can compete athletically and academically.”

“We have a great facility here,” said Abplanalp. “We pack the place during every home match, and word of that atmosphere spreads through the squash community. I received an email the other day from an alum who graduated in the 80’s, before there were even international courts here, and he told me that whenever he gets together with fellow classmates, the conversation is al- ways about the squash program. When you get a player of Khalifa’s caliber to come to your school, it opens a lot of eyes and makes coming here an attractive option.”

One player who has seen the rise of the Saints close-up is senior captain Vir Seth. After playing at the top of the ladder early in his career, he now finds himself fighting for his spot in the lineup on a daily basis. “It’s a totally different culture here,” according to Seth. “With the great classes we have had coming in the past two years, a lot of players who had been in the lineup are now playing near the bottom and even in the No. 12-14 spots. My job as captain is to see that, although they may not be in the lineup, they are still buying in to what we are doing here and are part of the program. I think by seeing me, the senior captain, having to be at my best at all times to stay in the lineup, makes them want to work harder.”

While Rochester always enjoyed an Ivy League-like academic reputation, coach Martin Heath has now brought the squash program up to that same level of excellence.

The mutual respect between the two schools is apparent when talking to both coaches. “I have a lot of admiration for the way Chris has developed his program,” remarked Heath. “Our matches have been incredibly close, and I think they will continue to be for the next few years going forward. It certainly makes the Liberty League a lot more fun.”

Abplanalp also recognizes the bond between the two programs when they play, saying there is noticeably less arguing with officials and between players, despite the increased stakes. “Having us now being two of the top teams in the country is an interesting dynamic. It’s great for the league and for upstate New York.” He laughs when he thinks back to not that long ago “when we were competing against each other for the twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth spots in the country.”

Seth, while saying that the long-term goal is nationals, would like to see the 5-4 scores that have gone in Rochester’s favor the past three times they have met turn St. Lawrence’s way this season. Of beating the Yellowjackets, he says, “It’s what we have been looking forward to all fall, what we have been training so hard for.”

Heath, while downplaying Rochester’s status as a championship contender, does admit, “We have an opportunity now. We have been knocking at the door. Rochester has never even made it to a final, and if we get there, why not?”

Given the team’s current trajectory, Abplanalp, when asked, laughed and said that while it would be great to someday see an Amr Khalifa Wall of Fame plaque draw the same reaction as Kirk Douglas’, for now he takes a more cautious approach—“I do still see us as an underdog, but we have talent, and we plan to work hard and give ourselves a shot.”