When Secretariat rode home in the 1973 Belmont Stakes to complete horse racing's Triple Crown, it wasn't as much of a victory as a coronation. It was expected, like the Red Sox finding ways to go seven games in the world Series before losing or Olympic swimming champion Janet Evans shredding helpless coeds in the water while at Stanford.
So too, as expected, the Harvard men's squash team completed another incredible season by dominating this past weekend's NISRA team Championships at Princeton. The national title was the Crimson's fifth straight, and the outcome was never in doubt.
"What has carried us through is our refusal to give up, our refusal to die," Harvard captain Tal Ben-Shachar '96 said. "Most of the matches against Princeton were tightly fought, but they always broke. It was inevitable. That's how we prepared--they were unable to endure the fast-pace of the matches. The satisfaction was immense."
And freshmen Daniel Ezra, brother of last year's captain, Adrian Ezra '94, expressed the metaphysical feeling of winning it all.
"This rounded out a great year for us," he said. "It is an emotional high. Hopefully, I'll have another three years of this. We did the job in style."
And, like McEnroe at his best, the Crimson had the substance to back up the style. Harvard, playing in the top bracket of the tournament, demolished Yale 9-0 in the quarterfinals on Friday brutalized Trinity 9-0 on Saturday, and capped the one-better-than Kerrigan weekend by dispatching Princeton in the finals on Sunday, 8-1.
The Crimson who finished the year with a perfect 12-0 dual record and 6-0 Ivy record, had already clinched they Ivy League championship entering the weekend.
But this team has come to want nothing less than perfection, and in a tone auguring bad news for its competition--which has a tough enough time when the Harvard squashers are not extra-motivated--the player all pointed to the national title as what would make or break the year.
After all, we are not dealing with the San Diego Chargers--getting there was not close to good enough.
Harvard's first opponent was Yale, which the Crimson had easily beaten two days before on February 22, 9-0. It was deja vu all over again, as the Crimson pitched another 9-0 shutout.
This match contrasted with the national title match a year earlier between these two heated rivals, That match, which the Crimson pulled out 5-4 in matches by virtue of a thrilling, come from behind 3-2 game victory by Ben-Shachar, went down in squash annals as one for the ages--comparable in racket history to the 1981 BorgMcEnroe Wimbledon Final.
No such drama would exist this year, as Harvard followed its Yale win with a 9-0 drubbing of Trinity (who the Crimson also beat 9-0 on February 12) in one semi-final. And then, for all the marbles, Harvard beat Princeton 8-1.
The Princeton match was tougher than the score would indicate. In a mini-upset, the Tigers had easily beaten Western Ontario (which was the odds--on favorite to face Harvard in the finals) in the other semi-final match. This win, coupled with the close 6-3 Harvard victory against Princeton on February 5 (the Crimson's tightest match of the year), set the stage for a true battle.
And according to the players (if not according to the score sheets) that battle came. Of the even seeded players (the number two, four, six, and, eight out of nine seeds) who took the courts first, only second seed freshmen Daniel Ezra had an easy 3-0 match. Although junior Ted Bruenner dropped his match, sixth seed sophomore Andy Walter and eight seed freshmen Jeff Blumberg fought for difficult 3-1 wins.
The difficulties soon would end, however, as Ben-Shachar an friends then took the courts. The Crimson players lost only two sets in the five odd seeded matches, and it was Kool and the Gang celebrations time.
"It is hard to compare this year's win to last year's," Ben-Shachar said. "But we really progressed from the beginning of the year till the end. Princeton soundly beat Western Ontario in the semi-finals, and Western Ontario had given us a tough time at the beginning of the year [in a72 Crimson win on December 3]."
Unsurprisingly, the players stressed Durocher-like teamwork and hard work as the keys to success.
"When one looks at it from an outside perspective, one only sees the statistic," Ben-Shachar said. "But we win because we work and train the hardest as a team. Although we are individuals, we play as a team. And we have the best coaching."
All the players lauded the coaching staff, especially coach Bill Doyle, who has had three national titles in this three years at the helm.
Moreover, Ben-Shacher emphasized the mythical bonds of teamwork as a decisive factor in some of the longer matches against Princeton.
"After playing for an hour and a half and being exhausted the feeling of the whole team made a real difference (against Princeton)," he said.
Ezra also pointed out that the 8-1 score against the Tigers was deceptively close, but--along with better conditioning by the Crimson--he noted that Princeton's unpreparedness contributed to the outcome.
"Every time we played Princeton, they had a different line-up," he said. "That really showed a degree of inconsistency and unpreparedness."
Harvard ended the year with a 25 straight dual match winning streak that dates back to March 1993, and with a 100-8 aggregate record in all matches (504-4 Ivy). This statistical dominance is almost unmatched in modern competitive inter-collegiate history, and figures to continue, with only on of the nine top players graduating (Mike Masland, who usually is seeded fourth of fifth).
Secretariat was only one horse, the Harvard men's squash team rides on.