No. 1 Harvard Women’s Squash Seeks Redemption

HIDDEN GEM
EMILY A. PEREIRA

Harvard junior Laura Gemmell, shown above, enters the 2011-12 season with renewed focus after dropping the first match of her collegiate career in the finals of February’s CSA National Individual Championships. The No. 1 Crimson opens its season tomorrow against Stanford and Williams.

Some things in this world have a tendency to linger: winter in northern cities, for instance, or a bad credit score. The same goes for a difficult loss in a championship game.

When the Harvard women’s squash team steps onto the court against Stanford and Williams this Friday, the athletes will attempt to eliminate the bad taste in their mouths that has remained for over six months after losing the national championship in February to Yale, 5-4.

“The team felt that they were the favorites last year and that they could have, and should have, won the Ivy title and the overall,” Crimson coach Mike Way said. “And we lost both titles, 5-4. That memory lingers.”

The squad took a large step in turning a new page before the start of the regular season by winning the Ivy League scrimmage last weekend at the Bulldogs’ Brady Squash Center.

“For us to … have some very, very tough matches and to win it is just a confidence booster,” Way said. “It makes [the team] realize the program is working and they are on track for the real guts of the season, which is after Christmas.”

While the Crimson won’t face their toughest competition until 2012, junior Laura Gemmell said that these early contests are still important for the succcess of the team.

“It definitely sets the tone,” Gemmell said. “But everyone is more excited for it. We’ve been training since September, and now the season finally starts.”

Gemmell has more reason than anyone to be ready to begin anew.

In February, she suffered her first collegiate loss to Yale’s Millie Tomlinson in the finals of the CSA National Individual Championships. Yet, like the team, she took a step toward gaining retribution last weekend at the Ivy League scrimmage.

“I played [Tomlinson] over the weekend, and I beat her this time,” Gemmell said. “It was cool because it wasn’t very stressful, and it was good to walk away with the win.”

In addition to the demons of last year, Harvard will be facing two top-flight opponents on Friday. Stanford finished sixth in the country last year, a school record, and retained that spot in the College Squash Association’s preseason ranking.

As much as the Cardinal, led by junior First Team All-American Pamela Chua, would like to focus on its matchup with top-ranked Harvard, it will simultaneously have to ready itself for the five other contests it has slated for this coming weekend alone.

After taking on the Cardinal at 3 p.m., Harvard will turn around and face the Ephs, ranked ninth in the nation by the CSA.

Last year, Williams had an underwhelming campaign by its standards. Now, the squad will attempt to improve on last year’s 14-12 performance, as 10 of its top-11 contributors return to a team now bolstered by at least three incoming freshmen expected to compete during the coming season.

In both matches, the Crimson will be forced to play without freshman Amanda Sobhy, who must still go through compliance procedures. In 2010, Sobhy became the first U.S. player to win the World Junior Squash Championships. Harvard’s other freshmen, Haley Mendez, Julianne Chu, and Megan Murray, will be in the lineup according to Way, who said that the rookies have already strengthened the team.

“They’ve already had an impact just in work ethic and attitude,” Way said. “It’s already a much stronger unit and more cohesive unit, which is terrific.”

On its mission to recapture the national championship, Harvard will  also have to carry the psychological weight of a preseason No. 1 ranking.

“We are the favorites. We are expected to win, so that always [adds] a little more stress,” Way said. “But they are always prepared. They are feeling confident, but not cocky.”

As the team handles multiple pressures in early action, Way expects the players to be able to rely on each other.

“As tight a unit as they were last year, this group is a much tighter bunch, and in all the good things,” he said. “Not to take anything away from last year, but we just see some very genuine friendships off the court. And in large part that has to do with the captains [Cece Cortes and Nirasha Guruge], who are doing a terrific job.”

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