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Hi. My name is Mike Volonnino. And I'm a squash convert.
Whew. You can't imagine how hard that was to say. I've spent many hours in the office mocking how little anyone cared about the Harvard men's and women's squash teams. It's not that they weren't good--I've written squash national championship stories before. But it was, well, squash.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to head down to the Murr Center to watch the men's and women's team sweep Amherst and Tufts, respectively. I arrived with a snicker on my face. I was there only to guide Martin Bell on his first story, which by the way is excellent. As an added bonus, I would see freshman No. 4 Dylan Patterson, who graduated my high school.
(Wiped the floor with that Lord Jeff--go Regis!)
But something struck me the moment I sat down in the grandstand. Despite having almost no audience in attendance except for a few parents, the teams lined up for player introductions.
Side by side, the captains of each team announced each position. The women went first, and the men's squad sat in the stands and vocally cheered their counterparts. When freshman No. 7 Lindsay Coleman's name came up, the men stood and gave a rousing standing ovation.
Apparently, they select a different frosh each game to honor, as a way of welcoming to Harvard. In a sport which labors in almost complete anonymity, that is the support network they have built for each other.
The women then started play and the men proceeded with their player introductions. The whole event had a refreshing feel. This did not seem to be a high level, Division I sport, but a pickup game.
There was no formality to the entire affair. Players warmed up and started their matches at their leisure. The even numbered seeds went first and everybody plays at the same time-- diminishing the attention placed on any one match.
Nobody officiates these matches. Just as if you and your buddy went to the Q-Rac to hit the ball around a little, you make your own rulings. A member of each team watches, keeps score, and acts as an appeal referee, but I didn't see many disputes.
The squash players simply go out and play. Once the matches start, there is little Harvard Coach Satinder Bajwa can do. Instead, he wanders about, encouraging his team, and schmoozes a few parents along the way.
It very much is an insular sport. Granted, part of that there is a pretty high barrier to entry in the U.S. with most squash courts being in private clubs. But once you're inside, it's a real community. During the most intense of matches, opponents will still tip their racquets for nice shots.
The informality meant that I could wander along from match to match too, deciding which of the fast-paced contests caught my eye. For someone who has never seen a squash match before, I was impressed with the speed of the matches, and I finally saw the actual skill level of the famed Harvard Crimson.
I knew that my squash-joking days were over when I sat down in grandstand, after everyone else had competed, to watch Harvard co-captain Tim Wyant battle Amherst captain David McNeely. McNeely is the highest- ranked American collegiate player, and Wyant came ever so close to capturing the NISRA championship last year.
I have no technical knowledge of squash to break down the match. All I can offer is my amazement to see how many balls each competitor retrieved and the battle it was for each point. Wyant kept getting stronger as the match proceeded and capped off a perfect evening for Harvard.
It was a great win for Wyant, and an excellent precursor to his grudge match with Princeton's Peter Yik this Sunday. Yik eliminated Wyant last year from nationals.
How many other members of Harvard's 41 varsity sports have similar moments of greatness, with nobody but their own teammates around to applaud and congratulate.
In truth, the Murr Center will be packed this weekend, but only with a broader circle of squash players, namely regional high school players and other swatters.
But not me. I've never so much as touched a squash racquet. My usual beat, men's hockey, has the weekend off thanks to aftermath of the Vermont hazing scandal so I just might snake down to the Murr Center to cheer on Wyant.
And I promise to find another obscure sport to pick on.
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