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Let's talk squash. Sure, I know the season has been over for nearly a month, but it's only March 19 and technically there are still two days left in the winter season. Besides, with Princeton once again copping the national title, Harvard men's squash enthusiasts have some serious things to think about in the off-season.
One bright spot on the horizon, though, is the recent election of junior Mike Desaulniers as captain for next season. The choice of Desaulniers is a predictable one, considering his amazing credentials, even though he missed half of the squad's matches because of a broken foot. The Canadian native is two-time American national champ, three years All-Ivy League and has been the number one amateur in North America since birth, or so it seems.
The "D," as his teammates call him, faces the difficult task of being team leader for an individual sport, but he should fit well into the dual role. As number four man Mitch Reese observes, "Mike is the man for the job, because he is accomplished both as an individual and as a team leader. Just the dedication he puts in is a motivating example."
Desaulniers' succession to the Hemenway Gym throne merits a word or two on his predecessor, John Havens. The power-hitting, loose-playing Arnie Palmer of squash gave the Harvard team a character of its own and left his mark on the Ivy League. During his sometimes-brilliant, often-frustrating four-year Crimson career, Havens tasted both glory and defeat. After an outstanding freshman year on the '75-'76 national title team, Havens met with some bad luck when the high priests of collegiate racqueteering decided to change the composition of the official squash ball. The new softer spheroid left the brawny Havens's playing style obsolete and he became, as assistant squash coach and former Crimson captain Mark Panarese remarked, "a dinosaur."
Survival of the Fittest
The Crimson's dinosaur didn't die right away, but, in Darwinian fashion, survived the ball change well enough to gain All-Ivy status his sophomore and junior seasons. This year, however, chronic knee and elbow injuries dimmed Havens's performance, and the Kirkland House resident managed only a 5-3 dual match record. But his struggles, as Desaulniers notes, "became a constant motivation for the team, because above all else John is a team man."
But Princeton's record still stands. The Tigers have been national champs for three years in a row now, and that's an abnormally long drought for the Crimson. It wasn't so long ago that Hemenway was the Valhalla of squash, but it has recently become its Mudville. So why is it that for the third year in a row the Mighty Crimson has struck out?
The major cause of the racqueteers' decline from dominance seems to be the sport's increasing popularity. Back when Jack Barnaby was the Crimson's coach and squash was in its infancy, Harvard monopolized the game. But, as Desaulniers said recently, "times have changed." In particular, more than "times" have changed at Princeton, where the Tigers, tired of finishing behind the Crimson year after year, have discarded the "Harvard method" of coaching in favor of an aggressive recruiting program.
The traditional "Harvard method" involves building squash players from scratch. The classic example of the built-from-the-ground player is Vic Neiderhoffer, whom Barnaby coached in the early '60s. A non-player before entering Harvard, Neiderhoffer graduated in 1964 as the top-ranked amateur in the nation. However, now that players are getting four years of competitive squash in high school, the Neiderhoffer days are gone and the "Harvard method" is, as Panarese might say, "a dinosaur."
At Princeton, on the other hand, top high school and preppie players get the "free meals, free room, good time" deal for a weekend or two and, after the treatment, they usually sign on for the duration. All Tiger coach Norm Peck has to do is polish the trophy case. Presto chango, and Princeton is three-time national champ, leaving Fish and Barnaby's erector set coaching style looking at second place (or third this year).
What Is To Be Done? In light of the Princeton program, Fish really only has two choices. One, he can start "building" players so well in three years that they can compete with seven-year veterans. Fish is indeed an excellent coach, perhaps the equal of a young Barnaby, but even he couldn't work such miracles. As Reese explains, "Princeton gets pre-packaged players so the guy who is 'made' just doesn't have a chance."
Fish's second option is to do as the Princetonians do and start recruiting. Unfortunately, the word "recruit," like the word "politics," carries the stench of corruption and illegality no matter what the context. But, in its most benign form, all it really involves is telling the squash-playing applicant "We really want you to come here, because you'll fit right into the program..." That kind of prodding doesn't mean Hemenway will be populated by intellectual zombies majoring in animal husbandry, but only that the top high school players might decide to play for the Crimson rather than the Tigers. Hey, what more could you want?
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