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Moving a Sport Beyond its Elitist Roots

Squash's Steve Piltch

By Michael Stankiewicz

Following in the footsteps to Harvard squash coaching legends Harry Cowles, Jack Barnaby and Dave Fish would make anyone nervous--so many wins, so few losses and all those national championships.

But Harvard squash Coach Steve Piltch sees his mission as much more than just winning national championships. Sure, his women's teams have won three titles in the last four years and, in his first year as coach of both the men's and women's teams, the men fell just one match short of another title. And, yes, two of Piltch's players, Jon Bernheimer and Jenny Holleran, swept the individual national championships this winter.

There's more: Piltch worries as much about squash's limited appeal as he does about Princeton or Yale.

"It's frustrating that the sport still has an elitist reputation," Piltch says. "It's still at a small level, which we'd like to change."

At least at Harvard, Piltch may be successful. Only the lack of a sufficient number of squash courts on campus has limited a burgeoning JV and intramural squash program.

"The addition of facilities could help," Piltch says. "Then it would be possible to hold open clinics. If every person I know who plays squash would introduce one or two people to it, the sport would grow."

Plans have been drawn for a new squash facility to be located next to the Varsity Club, which would include at least four international-width court and would have enough flexibility to allow the other narrow-width courts to be adapted to the international dimensions.

This is important, according to Fish, because the hardball squash played in the narrow courts and so common in the American northeast is harder for novices to learn than its softball compatriot.

"In the U.S., squash has kept its elitist roots, because hardball is more discouraging to pick up," Fish says. "There is a built-in inertia in the northeast because there are so many narrow courts. In other countries, people can really pick it up, get involved and enjoy themselves."

Ironically, squash is a relatively new sport for this crusader of the squash cause. After graduating from Williams College in 1977, Piltch moved to Choate Rosemary, where he taught basketball.

"If you'd told me I would coach squash, I'd say you're crazy," Piltch says. "Basketball's my passion."

But the Choate squash coach was on leave and the future crusader was convinced to try his hand at coaching squash. When Piltch moved to Harvard to pursue a masters in education in 1983, Fish asked him to join the Crimson program as the men's assistant coach. Three years later, Piltch took over the women's program.

Currently, Piltch is in his fourth year of pursuing a doctorate in education.

"I'm lucky, because my avocation and vocation overlapped," says Piltch, whose doctoral thesis concentrates on academics and basketball.

Last year, when Fish resigned to devote more time to his duties as men's tennis coach, Piltch directed the integration of the two teams into one program.

"Piltch did an extremely good job in a difficult situation," Harvard Co-Captain Jim Masland says.

"He's willing to learn from people around him," Fish says. "Steve is a very dedicated student of the game. He's done a hell of a job in his first year doing that."

But Piltch enthusiastically emphasizes that Barnaby and Fish (who are still involved with the program as associate coaches) and Captains Holleran, Hope Nichols, Stephanie Clark, Bernheimer and Masland have made the transition easy.

Easy enough to free up some time for Piltch to pursue his mission.

"I've rarely met any people who, once they moved past preestablished perceptions, didn't enjoy it," Piltch adds. "No matter how good you are, there is always someone at your level to play with."

After all, if a guy with a passion for basketball could end up as the coach of the most successful squash program in the country, anyone must be able to play the sport, right?

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