By Anne Bello
Photos by Michael Bello
For all the buzz surrounding up-and-coming teams like St. Lawrence and Rochester early in the season, it was one of the most storied programs in college squash history that dominated the championship season.
Harvard swept Trinity to win the men’s team title, and Crimson players Amanda Sobhy and Ali Farag won the individual titles. Harvard nearly went four-for-four with national titles, but Trinity edged the Crimson 5-4 for the women’s team championship.
The men’s team tournament was first up in the championship order, hosted by Harvard, and matches were played around the Boston area at MIT, Northeastern, and Belmont Hill.
The Crimson didn’t need home-court advantage, but they made the most of it. Since falling 6-3 to Trinity in the 2013 Potter Cup final, Harvard hadn’t lost a match. The 2014 Ivy League champions were the top seed in the tournament draw, and they marched through the first two rounds, sweeping Penn and Franklin & Marshall.
They met Trinity in the final for the second year in a row. The Bantams had defeated Cornell 6-3 in the opening round and beat Yale 8-1 in the semifinals.
Harvard jumped out to an early lead, winning the first four matches. There was a flash of drama when Trinity’s Karan Malik took Harvard senior co-captain Brandon McLaughlin to 10-all in the fifth. Could a Trinity win stop the Crimson’s momentum? There was no chance to find out. McLaughlin pulled out a 12-10 win to seal the match, and with that Harvard was the 2014 men’s national champion.
The final score was Harvard 9, Trinity 0.
While the men’s final was decided early, the women’s title was up in the air until the final match on court. Princeton hosted the Women’s National Team Championships, with additional matches played at Lawrenceville. Harvard was favored to win their third consecutive national title coming into the tournament. The Ivy League champions were undefeated, having survived a 5-4 scare against Trinity during the regular season.
Harvard had defeated Trinity by the same score in the previous season’s championship final, but the Crimson had clinched that match early. This year, the two teams’ results suggested the final would be close. Trinity beat Stanford 9-0 on the first day of the tournament; Harvard defeated Dartmouth by the same score. In the semifinals, Harvard won 6-3 over Yale, and Trinity won 6-3 over Penn.
As the Howe Cup final began, it looked like another Harvard team would roll to victory: the first two matches went to the Crimson, and then junior Julianne Chu came back from 0-2 to take her match against Natalie Babjukova to five. But Babjukova, a junior at Trinity, held off Chu to give the Bantams a win.
The rest of the match was just as close—and suspenseful— as Babjukova’s win over Chu. Four matches went to five games, four went to three, and only Sobhy’s win over Kanzy El Defrawy was decided in three games. After eight matches, the score was tied 4-all.
The national title came down to the No. 4 match between Trinity’s Anna Kimberley and Harvard’s Saumya Karki. The Harvard sophomore won the first game, and then Kimberley won the next two. It looked like Karki might force a fifth, but Kimberley prevailed 11-9 to give the Bantams the 5-4 win and their third national title in program history—storming the court first was El Defrawy.
Interestingly, the last time Princeton hosted the Women’s National Team Championships, the Howe Cup final came down to the No. 4 match, which was played on the same court. That time, a Harvard player lost in four games to a first-year player from the United Kingdom with “Kimberley” in her name: Kim Hay of Yale.
Although established powers won the top divisions of the men’s and women’s team championships, the changing of the guard is occurring very quickly, in college squash time at least. Columbia, a program that gained varsity status in 2010, continued their rise. The men’s team finished second in the Hoehn Cup (B Division), losing 5-4 to Princeton in the final. Six of this season’s top sixteen teams were not in the top two divisions of the men’s team championships at the conclusion of the 1998-1999 season: Bates, Columbia, Cornell, Drexel, Rochester, and St. Lawrence. In fact, three of these schools— Columbia, Drexel, and St. Lawrence—did not even have varsity teams at the conclusion of the 1999 season.
Similarly, there are also new teams in the top two divisions of the women’s team championships. Four teams—Columbia, Drexel, George Washington, and Stanford—were not varsity teams at the conclusion of the 1998-1999 season. Yet, in just fifteen years, these teams have become new squash powers. Columbia entered this year’s championships as the top seed in the Kurtz Cup. As expected, they made it to the final. Their opponent in the final, George Washington, a program that gained varsity status in 2002, upset second-seeded Brown, 5-4, to make the final.
The Kurtz Cup final was a classic. After the first two rounds, Columbia held a 4-2 lead and seemed destined to take the Kurtz Cup to New York City. Unfazed, George Washington won the final three matches to claim the Kurtz Cup. Both these squads appear poised to ascend to the top flight next season.
With so many newcomers to the men’s and women’s college squash scene making moves up the rankings, established programs are fighting to maintain their positions. Several teams learned firsthand that maintaining a top-flight position and dropping to the second flight is the product of a few individual points.
As in the team championships, players from established programs came out on top, but several newcomers made waves as well at the Individual Championships, which were hosted by Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania.
The high drama of the women’s team final was followed by the least suspenseful championship of the four, as Sobhy cruised to her third national title. The outcome never seemed to be in doubt: not as Sobhy went undefeated during the regular season; not as she maintained her flawless record through the women’s team championships; and not as she powered through the draw at individuals. She didn’t drop a game during the season.
Sobhy faced El Defrawy in the Ramsay Cup final. The Trinity sophomore had twice come close to getting a game off of Sobhy during the season. But at Drexel, Sobhy shut El Defrawy down. El Defrawy is one of the most dynamic and exciting players in the women’s college game, and a week earlier, she was the first Trinity player to rush on court and hug Kimberley. But by the end of the match with Sobhy, El Defrawy looked resigned. Sobhy won her third national individual title in three games.
The men’s individual final was closer than the women’s. Farag, the 2012 individual champion, was on a mission. Last season, he was poised to defend his title, but St. Lawrence’s Amr Khaled Khalifa upset Farag in a five-game semifinal thriller. Khalifa went on to win the 2013 individual title over Todd Harrity of Princeton.
Farag was ready for a rematch. Farag was seeded first in the draw, Khalifa second, and they met in the final. Khalifa won the first game, but Farag steadily gained ground, winning a very close second game and then taking the third game as well.
Khalifa put in a heroic effort, during one rally hitting the ground, scrambling across court, and diving to win the point. But the St. Lawrence sophomore had seen limited playing time during the season, and in the end it caught up to him. Farag won the fourth game and with it his second individual title.
A highlight of the individual championship weekend was the induction of former Princeton head coach Bob Callahan into the Men’s College Squash Hall of Fame. Callahan was also presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Many of Callahan’s former players were in attendance, including four time individual champion Yasser El Halaby and Harrity, currently one of the best players in American men’s squash. In an emotional speech, Callahan graciously thanked all those who had helped him throughout his time at Princeton.
Fittingly, the Princeton men were awarded the 2014 Sloane Award for team sportsmanship. The Tigers were presented with the award on the last day of the men’s team championships. Callahan, who was at the match, was clearly happy that the Princeton tradition of sportsmanship was continuing under new head coach Sean Wilkinson.
Drexel University won the 2014 Barnaby Award as the most improved men’s team. The Dragons finished 16th in the nation this season after finishing 22nd last year.
Farag was named the 2014 Skillman Award winner, the top individual honor in men’s college squash.
At the Women’s National Team Championships, Trinity co captain Catalina Pelaez was named the 2014 Richey Award winner, the top individual honor in women’s college squash.
Michaela Martin of Bowdoin College was presented with the Wetzel Award as the best senior to learn to play squash in college.
The Chaffee Award for team sportsmanship was given to Brown University and head coach Stuart le Gassick. St. Lawrence, who climbed from 27th in 2013 to 20th this year, was named the Most Improved Team.