By Bill Buckingham
“This should be the most fun weekend of the squash year. You will ultimately play for the U.S. somewhere along the way, and there is nothing better than that.” With those words, Ganek Family National Team Coach Paul Assaiante welcomed players to the third-annual Regional Team Championships at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. The Regional Team Championships are the culminating event of the Regional Squads Training Program, which serves as a key element of US Squash’s national team player development scheme.
Seven teams of juniors in the U13, U15 and U17 age divisions came to Yale: Connecticut, Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, New England, New York, Pennsylvania and West Coast. For the second year, the World Junior Championships Team USA squad trained alongside the RTC, as they prepared for worlds in August.
The weekend felt like a summer camp, with no parents, players staying with their teammates, eating together at the dining hall and being supervised by US Squash’s regional squad coaching team. Experts agree that culture within a team is a major factor for success. Over the past few years, US Squash has highlighted its culture as a major focus with the introduction of new programs such as the Battle of the Border, Regional Squads, the British Junior Open trip. Dan Roberts, the head professional at the Union Boat Club and coach of Team New England added, “The team aspect adds to everyone’s relationships. Kids who have been involved with team squash before fall right back into it, the new ones figure it out: Let’s go, be brave. By Sunday everyone is best friends. As the weekend goes on, the kids open up and become more team oriented.”
With the emphasis on rankings points for juniors in this country, playing in a team environment is something that is new to many players. While receiving lessons two or three times a week is important to development, playing matches and learning how to compete often falls by the wayside, according to West Coast coach Aisling Blake, who was on the pro tour fifteen years. “Kids need experience, they can have lessons all week, but they need to learn how to compete or they will struggle at the national level and get crushed on the world level. As squash gets bigger, kids realize that lessons are great for technical help, but what they really need is to play more people.”
With regional bragging rights at stake, the atmosphere felt more like a college championship, with veterans and newcomers alike fully embracing the team concept. As Rich Wade, the US Squash national teams director, told the players, “you should be proud: receiving an invite to this event is a huge accolade. We were able to see you in a completely new environment.”
Twenty-four coaches were on hand at the RTC. With squash growing at a far rapid rate in the U.S. than in other parts of the world, ex-world champions and top ten players are riding the momentum. Moreover, the regional squad programs and RTC offers kids the chance to work with the regional coaches when most top juniors train with their own private coaches.
“All the top players have their own coaches,” Devoy said. “Those coaches are the one who got them here and we are here to supplement what they have already know”. “We need to understand the needs of each player. If that means communicating with their coach, we do what’s best for the player. Egos are involved. They need to be receptive. They are on a national team for a reason. As much as they are learning from me, I’m learning from them. The quality is so much deeper and the EAP program gives players something to aim for. Teams used to draw U.S. in a pool in a world championship and think great, an easy win. Now they come watch us train. Resources available in U.S. bring the coaches here. Being able to talk and learn from to the Rod Martins, John Whites, Wael el Hindis, David Palmers is extraordinary. As good as we think we are, we can always learn from each other.”
Alex Stait, the assistant coach for the junior boys’ team, thought he was back on the PSA tour when he attended his first JCT after arriving from England four years ago. “In the time I have been here, the level has gone through the roof. There are so many great opportunities here for coaches. This is such an exciting time to be part of US Squash. This country is staring to catch up. On every level it’s growing. We are a bit behind on the world level, but it takes time, and we are creating the culture here. This is the first batch of national team players who have played from the BOB to BO to worlds. We are feeling good about this summer. We are excited to go to worlds. My advice to the players is to enjoy it. You worked so hard. Take it all in. I feel real confident, we have good depth. We don’t fear anyone. On a given day we can beat anyone.”
Roberts echoed these thoughts. “The developments that US Squash are creating is making the US the epicenter of squash growth. For most coaches, if they are interested in full time role, the U.S. is the place to be.
“The rise in level in great,” Team Connecticut head coach Luke Butterworth agreed. “It won’t be long before the U.S. is a power. To be a part of something that is this forward thinking is something to be proud of. The regional squad structure is very important for the insight it gives to the players as to how they can represent the country and also possibly become a professional tour player.”
At age thirteen, Marina Stefanoni will be one of the youngest players to ever represent the U.S. in a world championship. Having a player so young as the team’s No.1 player presents a unique challenge according to Devoy. “Marina is a once in a generation type player. You forget she is only thirteen. She is very good now, but the question is how do we keep pushing her forward. She is very coachable and knows how to take information and use it. Socially it’s the tough part. The No. 1 player tends to be a natural leader. Marina is quiet and lets her actions speak for her. She will learn from her other teammates about how to be on a team.”
Spencer Lovejoy is one of the first players to have participated in all of the U.S. junior programs, beginning at age thirteen with the Battle of the border. Lovejoy and Stefanoni both won the overall title for Team Connecticut in the inaugural Regional Team Championships in 2014. Lovejoy will represent Team USA in his second consecutive—and final—World Juniors this summer, while Stefanoni will make her World Juniors debut.
“Wearing U.S. on your back is a really special feeling,” Spencer said. “My teammates and I have known each other for years, and as we get older we really enjoy being with each other. I put a lot of pressure on myself usually, so having a team boosts me a bit more. It’s really cool to play abroad, seeing so many styles and so many ways of playing. I’m really excited to participate in the team worlds. It will be the culmination of my junior career.”
As players progress through the youth regional ranks and graduate from the junior scene, they’re faced with the decision of playing squash in college, pursuing a professional career, or both.
This summer, US Squash launched the inaugural US Squash Academy. Led by director Gilly Lane, the Academy provides an environment for U.S. collegiate athletes to train as if professionals, while receiving coaching education to prepare them for a potential career in squash after college through coaching certification. Through exposure to the U.S. national coaching staff, the athletes will be more prepared should they choose to successfully pursue the EAP upon graduation.
“Currently the culture in the U.S. is academic, commented Wade, “with the most amount of work geared to get into college. Unfortunately players with pro aspirations lose four years of development, so they graduate behind the curve. We currently have twenty-eight players on the pro tour, and we want to convince more of our best of our players to give it a shot.”
Rich Wade always knew he wanted to be a coach. A sports management major at Leeds Beckett University in England, the two-time high school national champion remembers playing in adult leagues when he was only eight years old. The regional team championship was Wade’s brainchild. After a stint in private coaching, Wade joined the US Squash staff in 2013 as the director of national teams. Just as studious off the court, he wanted to emulate England’s pyramid-like regional structure, with its large base narrowing to the top where the elite players reside. Pushing past the negatives, such as players not having their personal coach, and no ranking points available, he stressed the positives.
“There is no pressure playing for your region and it’s something you can be proud of,” Wade said. “Although the U.S. is much larger than England, we are aiming to start a similar tradition of a war between the counties. Our goal was to build out of criteria so all the best juniors want to be a regional squash player and from there transition to the national team.”
“You can’t underestimate the impact on the players,” Wade continued. “The exposure is excellent. This also helps with seeding in international competition. We now get to spend time with players multiple times a year. They become teammates with rival players and develop respect for each other. It’s healthy and a great to develop as people and players. We are transitioning from an emerging country to a country that is to be taking seriously. We are already there on the women’s side and are waiting for the breakthrough on the men’s. We are giving the current crop of player the motivation to push on.”
Although a native of England, Wade has no qualm with spearheading the creation of a rival squash power here in the States. “I wouldn’t have had this opportunity if I stayed. There is a bit of a chip on my shoulder and I want to beat England more than another country.”