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A year ago this week, junior Laura Gemmell was on top of the collegiate squash world.
Gemmell was Harvard’s undefeated No. 1 player and a reigning individual national champion who had just led her team to a national title. She was in the middle of another undefeated season as a sophomore, fighting for another pair of trophies. With 21 national championships to her name in her native Canada, Gemmell was the Harvard women’s squash version of Dwayne Wade. Enter LeBron.
This year Harvard has a new No. 1: Amanda Sobhy, 2010 Junior World Champion. The only American to ever win the title at the junior worlds, the freshman currently sits at No. 24 in the Women’s International Squash Player’s Association rankings, the governing body of professional women’s squash.
Sunday, Sobhy upset the World’s No. 6 women’s squash player, Australian Rachael Grinham, at the Cleveland Classic. Monday she did one better, topping World No. 2 Jenny Duncalf after Duncalf retired due to injury. The college freshman, who was playing as an amateur to ensure college eligibility, was up 2-1 at the time of Duncalf’s retirement, according to sources close to Sobhy.
Together, Sobhy and Gemmell form arguably the most powerful 1-2 punch in the history of college squash.
“Amanda unquestionably is the best No. 1 [in collegiate women’s squash history],” Crimson coach Mike Way said. “I suppose if you take the fact that [Gemmel] went two years unbeaten, that’s got to be the best 1-2 punch. I’ll go out there and say it.”
And the results so far this season are indicative of that kind of supremacy. In her three collegiate matches, Sobhy has taken on the No. 3, No. 4, and No. 12 players from last year. So far, Harvard’s freshman sensation hasn’t dropped a game. What’s more, no one has scored more than seven points against her in any game, leading to a 99-28 combined score.
Sobhy has leveled the best players the competition has had to offer, but Gemmell expected this kind of dominance when Sobhy committed to the Crimson last spring.
“Everyone was really excited to have someone of her caliber playing for our team and in college squash in general,” Gemmell said. “She’s definitely the best college squash player of all time.”
Because of her participation in professional tournaments, Sobhy was required by the Ivy League to sit out for the first 30 percent of Harvard’s matches. Sobhy concedes that the college game, while competitive, operates at a lower level than some of her previous competitions.
“I’m used to extremely tough matches with players at the pro level who do that for a living,” said the Sea Cliff, N.Y. native. “[On the professional circuit], I’m playing against women ten years older than me or twice my age…. It’s nice to be in college squash where the people are my own age and the level is not as intense.”
And while Sobhy continues her perfect season, Gemmell has also dismantled the competition.
Playing at the No. 2 position, Gemmell has gone a perfect 3-0, dropping only one game to Penn’s All-American, Rachel Goh. And after Sobhy’s eligibility concerns and early season illness, Gemmell is excited to take the court with the freshman.
“I was really excited to play with her,” the Eliot House resident said. “To be able to compete with her and train with her now all the time [is great.]”
But Sobhy has a modified training regimen. Before coming to Harvard, the program agreed to let Sobhy train with the men’s team as much as she wanted to help keep her challenged.
Way sees the mixed training as a necessity for any top player’s development.
“Laura played with the men a lot last year,” Way said. “But [Sobhy], at that level, has to spend even more time with the men. She does at least three sessions out of five with the men, sometimes four. And sometimes she does a double [session].”
But for Sobhy, someone who has competed as an individual for most of her life, the team aspect of collegiate squash is one of its main appeals.
“It’s really great having a team,” Sobhy said. “We all push each other. Whenever we are down we have the team to pick each other up, and we’re always there to help each other if we have problems. It’s nice to have a big support group; it’s like a big family.”
The rest of the team also seems supportive of Sobhy’s training routine, as Gemmell believes anything that helps her teammate helps the team as a whole.
“Women’s squash is very different than men’s squash. I get much more out of playing the top women’s player than when I used to train with some of the guys in my previous years,” Gemmell said. “The pace she hits the ball at, and the way she moves around the court, it’s at such a high level. I feel like I improve so much playing with her.”
Gemmell, despite her strong performances in the No. 2 spot, has found this season to be quite unlike her previous ones.
“My sophomore year was basically a repeat of my freshman year because you play the same girls at the No. 1 spot each time,” Gemmell said. “Obviously, I would love to play the No. 1 girls, but I still have super competitive matches.”
With Sobhy and Gemmell, the Crimson look poised to continue their undefeated season and make a run at returning to the summit of women’s collegiate squash.
“I think the team feels really confident,” Gemmell said. “The end of January and beginning of February is the heart of our season, and we have been training all fall for it, so people are really excited and confident. If you look at our whole line-up, we are just stacked.”
—Staff writer Peter G. Cornick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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