When co-captain Brandon McLaughlin stepped onto the exhibition squash court at the CSA Team Championships, the Harvard men’s squash team only needed one more match to claim the national title.
“If we had won that team event 8-1 and if [McLaughlin] was the one who lost, I think that to his dying day he would never forget that, and the victory would have never felt the same,” coach Mike Way said. “I had every confidence that we were going to win another match to win the national title. My only concern was for Brandon. He had his mom and dad in the crowd, people were going wild, and I only wanted it for him.”
After wins by freshmen Dylan Murray and Bryan Koh, junior Tyler Olson, and senior Nigel Koh put Harvard up by four against Trinity, the crowd gathered in the stands to watch McLaughlin play his last collegiate team match.
“It was the pinnacle of my career,” McLaughlin said. “Especially since I probably won’t play competitively ever again. I’ve been training for a pretty long time to get to this point, and it was a great way to finish. The whole season was built towards this match. Squash is a very individual sport, but the whole team was working towards [winning nationals], and it’s great that we all showed up on that day and performed really well.
In the 2013 team championships, McLaughlin had gone up against the Bantams’ Juan Vargas, but came up short with a 1-3 loss. So this year, after Trinity’s Karan Malik came back to take the lead, 2-1, Way was worried that last season’s result would repeat itself.
“Last year, he was killing his opponent and something happened in his head,” Way said. “He had the guy, he was in total control, and something happened. I think that he was in the driver’s seat on and off in this match, but there was a period in the fifth game where he really had to catch himself, and he did.”
McLaughlin managed to compose himself to win the fourth and set up a deciding fifth game.
“What he needed to do in the fifth game was pretty straightforward,” Way said. “But he had dug himself an enormous hole at the start and had to change things. With him, as well as others, it’s about sticking to the plan. He sometimes gets away from the game plan and wants to finish the rallies too soon, which is when unforced errors creep in.”
In the fifth game, Malik fought back to a tie it at 10-all. At game point, the crowd was completely silent as the rally started. However, once McLaughlin delivered a drop shot that Malik was unable to return, a deafening cheer rose as the senior turned around and fist pumped to the audience.
“I just had so much adrenaline going,” McLaughlin said. “I had played [Malik] before so I had a game plan for how I wanted to play with him. He’s a pretty talented player, so I wanted to keep him in the back as much as I could. But in a match like that, it’s much more about emotion. We’re both pretty good squash players, so it was whoever wanted it more.”
The senior’s last home match gave him a final mark of 13-2.
“Brandon has carried the team as the captain and leader by example, not just by words,” classmate Ali Farag said. “He’s led the team by his work ethic and maturity, and no one could have [earned that] victory as he did. Being down, 2-1, and coming back is just incredible. I think that what he did is something he will remember for his entire life.”
—Staff writer Emily T. Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.