Squash: With All Respect Due

It wasn’t so long ago—the year 2000, to be exact—that the women’s squash team was celebrating a national championship. But the departure of then-coach Demer Holloran the following year preceded a drop to 10th in the College Squash Association (CSA) rankings and a series of less than stellar seasons more recently.

Current women’s squash coach Jack Wyant is eager to reestablish the prominence the team enjoyed under Holloran, and signs are promising that he is well on the way to getting his wish. Things are looking up on the men’s side, too. Both Penn teams appear poised to crack the elite quadrumvirate—Trinity, Princeton, Harvard, and Yale—that has maintained a hold on the top rankings of the CSA.

Men’s coach Craig Thorpe-Clark is optimistic that Penn can overtake at least one of those teams this year. Since his first season as coach in 1998-1999, he’s steadily raised the quality of the team from 16th to a placing that hovers near the top. Last year, the men suffered a loss to Western Ontario in the season finale that dropped their standing from 5th to 6th. Meanwhile, the women’s team enjoyed an opposite swing: Early victories against Brown and Cornell raised their rank to 5th place from 6th, a position they held throughout the 2005-2006 season.

“We’re a hungry team,” Wyant says of his group, a statement that holds up for the men as well. “I think the kids sense that we’re moving up.”

Oddly enough, the coaches and captains of both teams cited losses as last season’s highlights. “We had close matches with Princeton and Harvard, losing 6-3, compared to losing 9-0 and 8-1 the year before,” explains Wyant. (In collegiate-level squash tournaments, each team presents its best nine players in individual matches, which are best-of-five-game series to nine points. The first team to win five of these matches wins the competition. The strongest players take the No. 1 spot on the team, and lower-ranked teams usually suffer a steeper drop in talent after the top positions.)

“More separates numbers 1-5 in squash than just about any other college sport,” says Wyant. “For us to be competitive with those teams only bodes well for the future.” Radhika Ahluwalia, in her second term as captain with fellow senior Paula Pearson, agrees with Wyant. “We lost,” she says, “but that gives us the motivation we need when we play them again and try to reverse the result.”

For the men, a 5-4 loss to Yale was a victory in defeat. “It was an incredible match to be a part of,” says senior co-captain and three-time All-American Gilly Lane. “The way the team reacted and came together was unbelievable.” This year’s match against Yale on December 2 has held special significance in the players’ minds since September.

Both of Penn’s squads graduated only one senior after the 2005-06 season and return All-American talent.For the women, Pearson has been named to the team three years in a row and hopes to become the first woman since Runa Reta C’03 to be named All-American all four years; Ahluwalia has been honored twice; and sophomore Alisha Turner was recognized for the successful freshman season that earned her the No. 1 spot over the second half of the season. On the men’s side, junior Lee Rosen, who had a breakout season as the No. 2 player, joined Lane as an All-American. The teams’ accomplishments have attracted stellar recruiting classes over the past two seasons.

Thorpe-Clark says his four freshmen and one transfer student are “a strong class” who are “already making their impact on the team.”

Wyant, who enters his third season at Penn, was recently selected as the U.S. junior women’s squash coach, a distinction that could aid next season’s recruiting efforts. However, he credits the recruiting success to the players themselves. “They made something out of nothing; they have an aura about them that other kids wanted to be a part of.”

As far as getting their proper respect, Wyant has a special source of inspiration: A photo hangs behind his desk of the 2000 national champion team being honored during halftime of a Penn-Princeton basketball game. “It’s a great moment,” he says, “and I’ve always looked at that as if you do something great, the Penn community will recognize it. That image has driven me since I’ve been here.”

—Carter Johns C’07

 




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