WOMEN'S SQUASH: Harvard Captures 13th National Title

GEM-STONES
Emily C. Wong

Playing at the No. 2 spot for the Harvard women’s squash team, junior Laura Gemmell went 9-1 during the Crimson’s undefeated 2011-12 season. Gemmell, who won the individual national championship as a freshman, went 14-2 overall, falling in the semifinals of the CSA Individual National Championships.

Squash is, by nature, an individual sport. But with the CSA Team National Championships on the line, the veterans of Harvard women’s squash team (17-0, 7-0 Ivy) showed how crucial the team aspect can be to a successful season.

Facing its biggest rival and defending national champion Yale, co-captain Nirasha Guruge got the team off to a hot start by dropping her opponent in a quick, three-game match. With the immediate boost of confidence, the team stormed out to a 4-1 lead as Guruge’s co-captain, Cece Cortes, battled for the decisive fifth victory. And when Yale’s Katherine Ballaine hit the tin to give Cortes the match and the national title, Cortes walked off the court into a huddle of her teammates to celebrate the journey they had completed.

Although the Crimson was the favorites for the title all year, the season was not without its obstacles. Players noted that the pressure to succeed can often be a burden, but Cortes believes her team was well equipped to handle the target on their backs.

“Our best asset was that we had some extremely mentally-tough freshmen and some upperclassmen who had developed their game over a long period of time,” Cortes says. “So when you have that kind of talent coming in and that veteran savvy at the top of the age group, you’re bound to succeed regardless of how tough it is.”

The season began flawlessly as the squad wrapped up its non-conference schedule with seven straight wins, taking the matches by a combined score of 59-4. The lineup fluctuated greatly during this time as players attempted to come back from injury.

But perhaps the biggest name missing from the team sheet was Amanda Sobhy. The freshman, currently ranked No. 29 in the professional squash circuit, sat poised to take the college squash world by storm. But Sobhy was required by the Ivy League to sit out the first 30 percent of the season. The same restrictions were placed on Ali Farag, the No. 1 player on Harvard’s men’s team.

Sobhy’s debut came just in time for the beginning of Ivy League play, as the team hosted Penn and Princeton. Sobhy dominated Penn captain Nabilla Ariffin to get her first college win, and the team took a 7-2 victory.

The next day did not prove to be as simple as the team faced its first hurdle against Princeton. The Crimson found itself down 4-0 in the middle of the second cycle of play.

“We were quite a nervous team because we had the world of expectations on our back,” Harvard coach Mike Way says.

The Crimson managed to win the next four matches to draw even with the Tigers. The decisive match fell into the hands of  freshman Haley Mendez, who promptly dropped her first two games. The rookie clawed her way back into the match with a 14-12 victory and then turned on the jets, beating Princeton’s Alexis Saunders in the final two games, 11-3 and 11-2.

“They pulled through that one by the skin of their teeth,” Way says. “I really think that was the beginning of something.”

Harvard ran through Ivy play without dropping a game before facing the year’s toughest task: taking on defending national champion Yale in New Haven, Conn.

As with Princeton, the Crimson found itself in a hole, down, 4-2, entering the final cycle of play.

But victories from Sobhy, junior Sarah Mumanachit, and Mendez snatched the Ivy title away from Yale, and gave Harvard the momentum heading into the Howe Cup final two weeks later.

Cortes had faith in her team’s final-round lineup.

“Sarah has developed so much since freshman year, and Haley and Amanda barely needed any coaching,” Cortes says. “They already have what it takes to win at the top.”

Despite claiming the Ivy title from its rival, Way knew his team had much more to give. And his team seemed to believe it too, as two hard weeks of preparation sent the Crimson into the Howe Cup and got it past the first two rounds against Dartmouth and Trinity without dropping a match. In the finals, the squad found itself facing Yale again, this time for the national crown.

But unlike the previous matchup, Harvard dominated from beginning to end, taking the program’s 13th national title in the process.

—Staff writer Peter G. Cornick can be reached at pcornick@college.harvard.edu.

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