Last weekend was a big one for Wesleyan squashers. After a Saturday match home against Drexel, one of the country’s top teams, the squads traveled to Williamstown, Mass. to contend with Amherst and Williams for the Little Three title. The women fell 8-1 in all three affairs, with the lone win in each coming from their untouchable number-one, Laila Samy ’18. The men lost 9-0 to an immensely talented Drexel team and then 8-1 to Williams, also talented but less impervious, before besting Amherst 5-4. Despite losing weekends, both sides take away extremely tangible positives. Guy Davidson ’16 battled to three five-set losses in 24 hours against tip-top opposition, which, for those less plugged into the squash world, is an insane effort. David Sneed ’17 showed the Ephs and The Lord Jeffs where he’s from with two victories. The Amherst opponent of Abigail Smith ’17 also won’t want to see her again, after the Cardinal pushed her to five. To gain insight on these matters and the season at large, The Argus spoke with Head Coach Shona Kerr.
The Argus: Can you take stock of the season so far, for both the men and the women?
Shona Kerr: I think we’re right where we need to be at this point. We had the first semester without two female players who were studying abroad and without one male player who was studying abroad, and we also had a couple of injuries. But we’re at a point now where both sides are at full strength and that puts us in the best position we can be headed into basically the last three weeks of the team season. So I’m pleased with where we’re at.
A: What are some particular highlights?
SK: Hopefully the real highlights are yet to come. But the women’s team beating fellow NESCAC school Conn College was great for them. Anytime we win a close match is a great result. In squash you really have to gut it out to win a match, and when it’s close and the pressure is on, I think that shows the real character of the team. On the men’s side the last month in particular has been that way, with Bowdoin, Colby, and Amherst. Where we’ve been tested and it’s been close, we’ve performed. NESCACs this weekend obviously is big, and then two weeks after that we have the Nationals, where we’ll probably see lots of our NESCAC rivals again. So how much of a dent both teams can make in teams that are above us is really the exciting challenge that we’re going to face.
A: Take us through this weekend, starting with the Drexel match on Saturday and then heading into Little Threes on Sunday.
SK: Drexel was a great match for us to have on our schedule. They’re a very good team—the men and women are ranked ninth and 12th in the country, so that’s a good ten spots plus ahead of us. Knowing that, it was a great no-lose situation, and it was great match experience. It’s always important to play teams that are better to try to raise your game to that level. I think that was a great experience moving to the Little Three competition on Sunday. On the women’s side, we were a little outmatched, particularly against Williams, and there were some closer games against Amherst, so if we see them again in the coming weeks, I would hope we can make it a little bit closer. On the men’s side, they put up a pretty good fight against Williams. Our draw was to play Williams first and then Amherst, back-to-back. That’s always really tough, playing back-to-back and away, but having said I think we could have played better. The men put a lot of emphasis of really pushing on and actually trying to win a Little Three championship. And while that is admirable, it’s a lot of pressure to handle when the moment comes. So had we been able to relax a little bit more into it, instead of having the win piece in the front of our mind, I think the group could have played a little better. It’s something we’re acknowledging moving forward, and we may well have another shot. Having to play Amherst right after Williams is always a tough spot, and it’s something that the men’s team did a really good job of gritting out. It wasn’t the prettiest win, but when things are going well it’s easy. When you have to grind it out that’s when you see the true character.
A: What was the mindset on the women’s side?
SK: The mindset was a little bit more relaxed on the women’s side at Little Threes, in that, a bit like playing Drexel, the team didn’t have anything to lose, since Williams and Amherst are both really strong teams. There wasn’t an expectation to win, so any successes, or matches where we did turn that attitude in our favor was a good experience. And like I said, any time you play teams that are better than you, it raises your level, so that when we do have that close match, perhaps on Friday against Colby, that experience will become an advantage.
A: Give a few shout-outs, if you could, after a crazy weekend of action.
SK: Abigail Smith had a really tight game against Amherst. I thought that was great, and Annie Ferreira ’17 put up a real fight against Williams, and what’s good for the team in that regard is that they’ve just come back from abroad and so it’s encouraging that they’re finding their feet in their game so that they can make more of an impact heading into NESCACs and Nationals. They’re on an upward curve. It was also a particularly notable weekend for Guy Davidson having to play three five-set matches in the course of 24 hours is a big ask, and he was playing very good players. The Drexel player finished at 23 in the country, which is just outside of All-American. So Guy is viewing this as having been a wonderful opportunity and that, once he’s recovered, he’s in that position again to be fitter, stronger, more prepared, and excited. He’s very, very positive, if maybe a little bit sore today.
A: You’ve got to add David Sneed to that list as well.
SK: Definitely. David had a great weekend. I guess he’s Little Three Champion at the number-five position. That level of play has always been within David’s reach. He started off the season really well, and was working on some things that we knew he needed to add to his game. And he’d had a cold for a week or two so [he] wasn’t quite 100 percent, and also slipped back into not using some of those tools. We put them back in, and of all the players Drexel gave him the most opportunity to play fearlessly. He took that mindset into Little Threes. His approach to that match and utilizing that momentum was really valuable against his Amherst and Williams opponents, and he’s definitely peaking at this point.
A: One more to add. Can you talk a little bit about Laila Samy ’17’s impact, and your goals for her this season?
SK: We’re obviously very fortunate to have Laila at one; she doesn’t lose too much. [Smiles]. Her personal focus is going to be on the individual championship, which is in five weeks’ time, and will be at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, CT. She finished ninth in the country last year and our broad goal is to improve on that. Really, goal number one is to crack the top five and goal number two, if we can do that, is how high can she go. Also, when the college season is over, I know Laila is very interested in playing some tournaments herself that are perhaps going to push her more. A lot of the top players will play in these kinds of things, which are actually professional tournaments where they don’t take the money. So that will help her improve perhaps more than some of the varsity matches this season have.
A: What do you think other coaches are saying to their players when they’re in-game versus Laila?
SK: Laila’s so humble that if other college coaches aren’t aware of just how good she is then I see them trying to coach up their player in the best way possible, but after a game or two games, if they’re sharp, they’ll realize what the difference in playing level is, and at that point I think they realize that beating her is unrealistic. At that point they’ve probably moved onto another player. But there may be some more intense coaching once we get to the individual tournament by some Ivy League schools who are going to be very threatened by her presence.
A: How do you, the staff, and Laila prepare for her end-of-year challenge in the context of a different sort of regular season schedule?
SK: We’re all definitely aware of that, and work specifically toward both goals. During practice day to day, she’s most often on court with the men, and she’s working toward that greater goal, and then is representing as required in varsity matches. And, yeah, we’ve been working on all aspects of Laila’s game for quite some time, specifically her mental approach to the game. That piece, as she improves, will be very important so that she can play as well as we all know she can when it’s needed.
A: Can you talk about the value and play of the co-captains, Liza Bayless ’16 and Bridget Doherty ’16?
SK: They’ve both moved up the ladder, and they’re definitely both earning their spots. Sometimes when you move up it takes you a little while to adjust to the new level required of you, but as the season has developed I think they’ve both settled very well into their new roles and new positions. Liza needs to believe it a little bit more, and Bridget is really owning it. Liza’s a phenomenal athlete, and she’s playing better squash than she ever has, but it’s hard to quantify success this season in such a win-oriented sports culture. But Liza and Bridget have actually improved more this season than perhaps any other season, so for that I’m completely thrilled for them.
A: What’s the mindset like heading into NESCACs?
SK: They’re always exciting. NESCACs is a big weekend. The women’s draw is set; we’re playing Colby on Friday. The men’s draw is interesting because they seeded us sixth, behind Colby who we beat. So pending an appeal, we’ll either be playing Bates, if we lose it, or Williams, if we win it. Once the committee’s made that decision, we can actually start preparing, but right now it’s tough for me to plan completely accurately. But the week for the men won’t be too intense. Most of the training has already been done, and the men need a recovery from the Little Three. The women will have more match play and will be fine-tuning some things to prepare for our specific opponents at the weekend. The goal for both sides is, if there’s a winnable match and it’s within our abilities, we want to make that happen.
A: Do you fancy the men against Williams if you see them again this weekend?
SK: I feel good about giving them a run for their money. We do need all the players to be firing on all cylinders, and if that happens and everybody brings everything they’re capable of on the same day at the same time—which is always the challenge in team squash—then we certainly have a shot.