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Back to Back: Women's Squash Earns CSA Title After Two Nail-Biter Victories

Another One
Co-captain Saumya Karki, pictured in action at last year's Howe Cup matchup against Princeton, and the Crimson claimed its second consecutive CSA title thanks to a 5-4 victory over No.2 Penn.

The top-ranked Harvard women’s squash team entered the weekend having already captured its 20th Ivy League title and left New Haven with its 16th Collegiate Squash Association team national championship.

Not only did the Crimson (13-0, 7-0 Ivy) finish the season as the only team in the nation to boast an undefeated record but it also brought home the Howe Cup for the second consecutive season after triumphs over three of the nation’s top programs.

HARVARD 5, No. 2 PENN 4

The Crimson found itself in the CSA Championship for the twelfth time since 2000 when team members walked onto the courts at the Brady Squash Center for a matchup with Penn (14-2, 6-1). Led by its four seniors, the team was confident but still felt the pressure.

“We were definitely nervous and anxious about our matches, but that comes with the territory,” co-captain Saumya Karki said. “To feel such pressure before a big match is a privilege in itself. We just kept reminding ourselves that we wanted to be where we were—in the finals—and no nervous energy could take the moment away from us.”

The defending champions played the Quakers in a match that came down to the very last game.

The Crimson went 1-2 at the end of the first flight, with freshman Sophie Mehta and her older sister and sophomore Alyssa both falling in drawn-out five-game matches. Sophomore Sue Ann Yong rebounded from her loss on Saturday against Trinity to sweep her opponent in the No. 6 spot.

Senior Michelle Gemmell, who won the deciding game in last year’s final, was unable to top Penn junior Michelle Wong at the No. 5 position, falling 3-1. Junior Dileas MacGowan cut Penn’s lead to just one game with a quick 3-0 sweep.

At the No. 2 position, freshman Kayley Leonard and Penn junior Anaka Alankamony traded wins in the first two games, but Leonard took control of the match down the stretch to claim a 3-1 win and tie the match at three.

It all came down to the last flight, with the outcome of the match on the shoulders of junior Katherine Tutrone, Karki, and freshman Sabrina Sobhy. Both Tutrone and Karki had pauses in play in addition to long games being played out to 12 or 14 points. Tutrone was unable to outlast her opponent, falling 3-1, while Karki claimed a 3-1 victory to set up a showdown at the No. 1 spot.

The championship now came down to Sobhy. Emotions ran high in the match, as in all four games the lead changed constantly. The contest went down to the very last play, in which Penn freshman Reeham Salah challenged a call when Sobhy was up 10-9 in the fourth game. After Sobhy’s cross-court lob, Salah chose to call for a let, which was denied. After a match filled with displays of athleticism on both sides, Sobhy clinched the 2016 CSA team championship for the Crimson.

“There is nothing quite like it,” MacGowan said. “[it was] so much better than winning in juniors when it’s just you competing individually and for yourself. This is why I love college squash—you fully mentally and physically exert yourself and then have the members of your team doing just the same. And then you get the result you were all working towards and then being able to celebrate it together is incredible.”

With the win, Harvard took home back-to-back championships for the second time in five years, with the first time being in 2012 and 2013. Coach Mike Way moved into fourth place on the all-time coaching Howe Cup list, capturing his fourth CSA in just six years, the shortest time span for four crowns in CSA history. Under Way, the Crimson has never placed lower than second in the team championship.

The team now trails Princeton by just one championship for most titles all-time.

HARVARD 5, TRINITY 4

It was in the semifinal round of the championships that Harvard met an old foe. Harvard has had a history of winning against Trinity (12-5, 2-0 NESCAC) in the tournament, defeating the Bantams every year but one since 2010. Trinity, fresh off winning its conference championship, was looking to avenge its loss and move one match closer to reclaiming the Cup.

The match came down to Karki’s match against Trinity co-captain Sachika Balvani, but Karki won in a sweep to send the Crimson into the championship match.

“I think it was an important win in that it gave us confidence that we could deal with high pressure and come out on top,” Karki said. “Also, it was good to sort of prepare ourselves physically and mentally before going into the finals with Penn.”

HARVARD 9, No. 8 CORNELL 0

Fresh off its Ivy League championship last weekend, Harvard carried the momentum into its quarterfinal match against conference rival Cornell (9-9, 2-5 Ivy).

The Crimson was off to a dominant start, with a sweep of the Big Red. The team allowed eight points or fewer in each of the 27 games.

“Everyone stepped up,” MacGowan said. “You don’t need to play a level above that which we have been playing all season. You just need to step up and play the way we train, and that is what everyone did.”

–Staff writer Katherine H. Scott can be reached at katherine.scott@thecrimson.com.

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