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With a recruiting class like this year’s, the Harvard women’s squash team isn’t rebuilding—it’s reloading. Four promising new players will be the Crimson’s ammunition as it takes aim at the top teams in the nation.
Sophomore transfer Kyla Grigg and freshmen Supriya Balsekar, Jen Blumberg and Elizabeth Berylson are filling in nicely at No. 1, 3, 4 and 10, respectively. Despite their newcomer status, the four are helping lead No. 4 Harvard in its pursuit of league and national titles. “We definitely have had a tremendous recruiting class,” Harvard coach Satinder Bajwa said. “These four this year have enabled us again.”
AROUND THE WORLD
The recruiting abilities of the program extend beyond American borders to the Commonwealth. Of the four new players, Grigg and Blumberg are Canadian, while Balsekar hails from India by way of the Taft School. All received international attention after succeeding in international competition.
Grigg, the 2003 U-19 Canadian Women’s Champion, was ranked second among the WISPA Rising Stars, the equivalent of a farm team for international professional squash. The same year, she lost in the 16th round of the world championship to Omneya Abdel Kawy, an Egyptian who would go on to win the championship and who is now ranked 10th in the world.
A junior national champion, Blumberg played for No. 1 for Team Canada, which took sixth at the world juniors.
Balsekar has represented Team India in the World Junior Championships in 1999, 2001 and 2003, most recently playing No. 3 for the team that advanced to the semifinals in Egypt.
THE COLLEGE TRY
Though they hail from around the globe, the recruits were drawn by Harvard’s reputation in the classroom and on the courts.
“I wanted to go to a school that was challenging academically, as well as having a good squash team,” Balsekar said.
The chance to continue to play competitive squash in college drew Grigg to transfer to Harvard from the University of Calgary, which lacked a team.
The recruits had other considerations. Blumberg, for instance, is the younger sister of senior Michael Blumberg, who plays at No. 4 for the Crimson men’s squad.“He was always encouraging me to go to Harvard so we would be together, which would be really fun,” Blumberg said. But, she added, “I didn’t come here just to follow in my brother’s footsteps.”
Like the rest of the new players, Blumberg is in no one’s shadow.
Three of the four recruits are seeded among the top 15 intercollegiate players in the nation. Grigg is ranked at No. 6, Blumberg at No. 10 and Balsekar at No. 14, joining three Crimson upperclassmen among the top 15. Grigg is the first Harvard woman on the international rankings and lines up first on the team’s roster.
Her acquisition fills the void in the Crimson left by the graduation of last year’s No. 1, Louisa Hall ’04.
“They’re big shoes to fill,” Grigg said. “I’m trying more or less not to think about it too much because she was such a great player.”
EMBRACING THE COMPETITION
Taking over the top spot at one of the country’s best teams is a challenging undertaking, but for players as experienced as these, the adjustment to intercollegiate play is not. Playing equally skilled players allows the four a competitive challenge not seen in secondary school play.
“I’m looking forward to playing people better than me, and losing matches,” Balsekar said. The latter would be a new experience for Balsekar—the three-time New England champion finished high school with a 48-0 record.
“My first two years, there was no one I could hit with,” Balsekar said. “Here, I can hit with most people on the team and it’s fine.”
As in other sports, the first step in adjusting to the increased competition of college play takes place in practice.
“The nice thing about the really strong girls on the team,” Berylson said. “They’re so open to playing with me or any of the other girls on the team. In my position, it’s a great opportunity to be playing with these really great players.”
It also means competition for playing time—Berylson, the No. 1 for 2004 Independent School League champion Milton Academy, has lined up at No. 10, but will work to move into the ranks of the nine matches that count for the match score.
“It’s ridiculous how much more intense it is, and people take it much more seriously,” Berylson said. “It’s awesome to be on a team where everyone cares so much and is working towards a similar goal.”
That goal is the Ivy championship and the Howe Cup, which determines the national champion. Standing in Harvard’s way are Princeton, Trinity, and most of all, Yale, which went undefeated last season and won both the league and national titles.
“I’d like to beat Yale, and I’d really like to beat Trinity,” said Blumberg. “I want to beat whomever I get put against, obviously,” she added.
The Bulldogs are favorites, entering the season with the top three intercollegiate players in the sport. In last year’s rebuilding season, the Crimson fell to Yale twice—first in the regular season 7-2, and then in the Howe Cup 6-3.
Two years ago, the Bulldogs upset Harvard 8-1 in the Howe Cup semifinals to end the Crimson’s hopes of a national title run.
“Our goal is to reverse that 8-1 loss into a 5-4 win,” Bajwa said. “I feel that we are back to what we were...If we perform well, then we have a great chance of squeaking an Ivy title.”
But the road to the Howell Cup runs uphill.
While the team warmed up by shutting down Brown and Williams weekends ago, with Grigg, Balsekar and Blumberg each winning in straight sets, the more intense competition is waiting in February.
“We are underdogs, still,” Bajwa acknowledged.
But they are underdogs with four yet-to-be-deployed weapons.
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