Did you know that winter athletes are here for two weeks before all us lay-people get back? Even if you do, you probably don’t know what they actually get up to as well as I do now. Believe it or not, I used the excuse of a “thesis” to return to campus on Jan. 3, just to watch them work.
Sometimes it’s hard to admit to myself how much I love squash; living with and hanging out with various members of both teams over the course of my four years here hasn’t exactly helped, nor has taking it up as a hobby. I’ve probably crossed a line with the team dynamic once or twice before, but the whole thesis excuse really put me in uncharted waters.
I think some of the squash parents (many of whom traveled absurdly far distances to watch their talented children, by the way) were worried about me when I showed up to every home match over break. I looked stressed, probably, or like an obsessive superfan, potentially, or (most likely) both.
Nonetheless, I stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the Winter at Wesleyan-sized crowds at the home squash matches. I knew this because a few sets of parents whose acquaintances I’d only just made asked me to have dinner with them. I assume they asked out of pity. Of course, I accepted. We went to Krust! Despite my own fascination, I imagine that all of the parents were far more rapt than I could ever be at their children and their children’s teammates’ master craft.
Indeed, what goes on down at the squash courts is indescribable on paper. You must go, and you must see.
Less beautiful, but equally important, is the winter break squash regimen, which has been described to me as “grueling” on countless off-record occasions. Eight or nine games in two weeks sounds tough enough. But the time spent here with not much beyond a bed, a racket, a pair of sneakers, and a ball is so much more than grueling.
The magic all starts with a grind: two-a-days, the bedrock of any successful sports combine. Ask an athlete anywhere you go about two-a-days, and they’ll probably groan. They’re designed to be arduous, and they were for Wes Squash.
The best two-a-days, though, are smart two-a-days, of the type that might tucker you out just enough to love your teammates that little bit much more, to push them that little bit much further (also, of the type to encourage chummy team dinners, breakfasts, lunches, brunches, and other non-food-related goofy gatherings).
Luckily, thanks to the compassion of Wesleyan’s coaching staff (led by the inimitable Shona Kerr in her 12th season), the practice times also encouraged relatively normal wake-ups and bedtimes (this is not normal for two-a-days, in my limited athletic experience). Indeed, I can attest that team meals occurred. Often. Occasionally at my house. (I was never, strictly speaking, invited).
Some may underestimate the degree to which, in spite of squash’s individual nature, it is a team sport. You need five individual victories to win as a team, which any college squasher will tell you is all that matters.
Take Johnny Hayes ’20, for instance. He’s a new member of the men’s team from sunny San Diego, and he found himself back in slushy Middletown over break. Regardless of the physical toll (and an unenviable weather readjustment), Hayes cherished the team time. He explained how it translates into match success, in a magical sort of way.
“Well, when a match is best out of nine, you have to depend on others to get the job done in the same way that they depend on you, not to mention that squash matches can get very intense and last a very long time,” he said. “We just played Hamilton, and it came down to the last game that went to 20-18, which almost never happens. At that point, your training and instinct sort of take over, and that is very much a culmination of your practice and work with the team. You sort of carry them with you in court, in a way.”
Kevin Le ’19, slotting in at eighth on the ladder, was the man enduring that epic 20-18 fifth-set match. The win was unquestionably the biggest of his Wesleyan career.
“All the Hamilton people were yelling at the top of their lungs and the Wesleyan team was rooting me on,” said Le.
And he delivered victory to the Cards, a culmination of his and his team’s hard work.
Hamilton, though, was a team that the Cards should always beat. The signature result of the winter season was a victory over an ascendant Tufts squad. The Redbirds took the top six spots to ensure victory over the Jumbos in an impressive defense of their home courts.
Other than a gritty 6-3 home loss to Colby, the men didn’t have too much team success to write home about. The combination of five studly seniors from one through five and four underclassmen six through nine has yet to fire on all cylinders. Never fear, though; we’ll surely be hearing more from them soon.
Turn the racket over in your hands, and you’ll find an entirely different picture. The women’s team is rising. Historically.
With returners buzzing like never before and six newcomers adding both talent and depth, the ante has unquestionably been upped for the Cardinals. Amongst eight matches over the last two weeks, the team crafted several impressive victories. From the wisdom and grit of senior captains Annie Ferreira and Abigail Smith, who anchor the lineup at third and second on the ladder, down through an all-star crew of underclasswomen, the Cardinals find themselves in heady territory on the national rankings of the College Squash Association in comparison to recent years.
Last weekend, for instance, the women made history when they defeated Hamilton, 6-3. Stunningly, it was the program’s first victory over that young, scrappy, and hungry bunch since 1998, a testament to their rapid improvement.
In the match the Cards displayed both their depth and top-ladder potency, strangling the Continentals at both the top and the bottom. Laila Samy ’18 sustained virtual perfection at number one, with a straight game victory, which Josie Russ ’20, Sarah Clothier ’19, and Ale Lampietti ’19 matched.
Smith handled her opponent at number two, a victory symbolic of her personal improvement this season.
“People always talk about how squash is a mental game, and I’ve really taken that to heart this season,” said Smith.
A tight to and fro with Colby, one at Wesleyan and one at the Pioneer Valley Invitational in western Massachusetts, saw the squads trading 5-4 victories, and earlier results against Tufts (7-2 loss) and Bowdoin (5-4 victory) give the squad plenty of hunger to take on the NESCAC (and beyond) in the weeks to come.
“We’re excited to potentially see Colby again and get another crack at them because we always have good matches,” said Ferreira, who is competing at third on the ladder and leading, with Smith, behind the scenes. “Obviously the Hamilton win was historic and we definitely want to keep that momentum going into little threes this week and NESCACs next week.”
Admittedly, there are too many players to shout out. Ali Imperiale ’19 rocked a five-game victory here. Samy took home NESCAC player of the week there. Two new sophomores, Clothier and Emma Robin, emerged over break to revitalize an already-strong young core.
Indeed, all signs point to an incandescent future, both near and far, for the Wesleyan Women.