No. 2 ranked Penn Squash won its first ever Potter Cup Finals match, but top-ranked Harvard cruised to its second straight title.
No. 2 ranked Penn Squash won its first ever Potter Cup Finals match, but top-ranked Harvard cruised to its second straight title. |

Racket Man Neal Abrams weighs in on Harvard's dominance in college squash, Penn's win over Trinity and why the game is gaining in popularity

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

American college squash is not an NCAA sport since there are only 68 men’s varsity teams. Long considered a prep-school and Ivy League sport, it is making inroads across the country, but still remains basically a northeastern sport populated by a lot of players from countries across the globe, and coaches from mainly Canada, South Africa, Australia, and other places that have been playing the international softball game for what seems like forever.

The College Squash Association, the governing body of American college squash, adopted the world-wide game of softball to replace the American hardball game back in the early ‘90’s, and since then the game has grown in both participation and excellence. For many years, the dominant team in men’s squash was Trinity College of Connecticut. Trinity Men’s team went 14 years….that’s right, years (!!) without losing a single duel match, and collected 13 national titles along the way. Trinity’s gentleman coach, Paul Assaiante, has recruited well, pulling players from about 15 countries, and uses his advantage of being able to admit players (students) in January, which the Ivy League does not allow. The streak started with their last loss, on February 22, 1998, and proceeded through 252 consecutive matches—the longest winning streak in college sports history. You think that UCLA was dominant in Men’s basketball back in the 60’s and 70’s? Their streak(s) were chump change compared to Trinity’s squash program!

Yale finally ended “The Streak” in January, 2012 when the Elis took down the Bantoms 5-4. The match was of such athletic historical significance that the noted American writer Tom Wolfe, who was hard to miss in his signature all-white suit, was in the audience and when he saw Yale’s #1 top Trinity’s #1 to end The Streak, he called it “…the best match I ever saw.”

Since The Streak came to an end, men’s squash has seen its elite revert to the Big 3—Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, although Princeton has fallen on very hard times after its longtime ultra-successful coach, Bob Callahan, passed away. They’ve bounced back this year, and have been joined recently by The University of Pennsylvania, Rochester, Drexel University, and a couple other northeast schools that pop in and out of the college squash rankings. But as the game expands its popularity, some other, decidedly non-northeast or Ivy League schools have begun to field varsity teams. These include UNC (Chapel Hill), the University of Michigan, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Washington University, and George Washington University.

This year Harvard seemed to be in a class by itself as they ran through their schedule without dropping a match. Team matches consist of nine individual matches between individual participants from each team or school, and in a 9-match “team” match, the Crimson only dropped 5 individual matches the whole year. To put that domination in perspective, they played 153 individual matches by their players in going 17-0, and went 148-5 in those individual matches. As the top seed, they romped into the finals of the Potter Division, the 8-man tournament who’s winner is crowned by the CSA as the National Champion. Second-seeded Trinity College dropped its semi-final to third-seeded University of Pennsylvania, as the Quakers moved into the National Championship match against the Crimson. Penn’s coach, Gilly Lane, and their Director of Squash Operations who also serves as the Women’s Head Coach, Jack Wyant, have done a wonderful job taking both of Penn’s teams up to the elite level. Penn has always been really good, but now they play for the national title both in the Men’s and Women’s draws. And although they have the vaunted Wharton School to hold out to recruits, it is still tough to recruit against “H-Y-P” (Harvard, Yale, Princeton).

In the Potter Cup Finals, however, Harvard had little trouble dispatching their Ivy League rivals, and today were crowned champions for the second year in a row. Rounding out the top 5 after Harvard, Penn, and Trinity were Princeton and the University of Rochester. Yale, Virginia, Drexel, Dartmouth, and Columbia completed the elite for 2020, which left Western Ontario and Cornell outside looking in.

As tennis has dropped in both popular interest and participation over the past decade-plus, especially in the United States, squash has picked up both converts and new players alike. Watching professional tennis players now, it’s hard not to notice that most of them, both in the Men’s and Women’s games, are big. I mean really big. The average height for professional tennis players on the Tour is over 6’3” for men, and 5’11” for women, and that’s just the average. Height doesn’t help a squash player stop on a dime, to change directions quickly, to bend for low balls, or to be particularly quick. Squash puts a particular premium on these physical abilities, and having above average height or weight does not give a player a competitive advantage. In fact, extraordinary height and/or weight may be a significant detriment, as it doesn’t allow the squash player to be quick as well as fast. Because no one is granted an advantage because of their physical dimensions, more potential players are looking at the sport and are picking up the game because they feel that they can excel in it with the appropriate amount of hard work and practice.

Now that there are more schools from various parts of the country picking up the game, look to see which school in your neighborhood becomes the next squash convert. If you go to see a match, especially one that includes one of the top-tier schools, you’ll be both impressed and excited. The matches are an interesting mix of athletic and mathematical excellence, and rewards those who are in particularly good physical shape and understand the geometry of the shots and the sequences of those shots, as they are played in an enclosed, indoor court. But I wouldn’t just become a fan. Become a participant. If you try it, you’ll like it.

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