UPDATED: February 27, 2017 at 3:48pm
Reaching new heights in its historic climb for greatness, Harvard women’s squash won a third consecutive College Squash Association national championship Sunday afternoon. The 7-2 victory over Penn gave the Crimson its 17th national title, tied for the most in the history of collegiate women’s squash.
As sophomore Kayley Leonard’s drop shot bounced twice in front of her opponent, dreams of number 17 began to crystalize in front of the eyes of the Crimson (15-0, 7-0 Ivy League). The Harrison, N.Y. native was able to snatch five match points from the clutches of No. 3 Penn junior Marie Stephan to bring the closely fought match to a deciding tie breaker. Leonard was able to complete a seven-point run and capture her match as part of a sweep of the first wave in championship play.
Scrappy No. 2 Penn (13-2, 6-1) had come back from a 3-0 deficit in its semifinal bout against Trinity. Stephan held a potential spark for yet another rally but failed to convert one final point to close out a nailbiter match. From that point on, the championship contest was all but a formality for Harvard.
“Kayley Leonard never loses a squash match,” freshman Gina Kennedy said. “That showed today–she’ll fight to the end, and she’s just the best player you can have on the Harvard team.”
The Crimson’s top two women, Kennedy and sophomore Sabrina Sobhy, fell in later matches, but by the time their bouts ended, the tournament final had already been decided. Harvard’s three lowest-ranked athletes provided easy relief from the competitive intensity by winning their matchups in the minimum number of games. It was truly a team effort, and the Crimson valued each one of its victories, no matter where it came from.
Penn’s dramatic edgeding of the Bantams on Saturday afternoon by a 5-4 margin left the team elated yet physically spent. At virtually the same time Penn began its comeback, Harvard had just clinched a berth in the national championship game as part of an 8-1 rout of No. 4 Princeton.
The Crimson’s physical and competitive dominance was apparent. The team maintained essentially the same ladder throughout the tournament, with No. 9 freshman Eleonore Evans filling in for captain Dileas MacGowan one game, and started the quarterfinals with a perfect 9-0 sweep of No. 8 Columbia on Friday without dropping a single game.
“We were able to outlast our opponent, I think both physically, in terms of our fitness, but also just mentally,” MacGowan said. “We were the team, at those critical points, that played them really well. People were able to stick it out, and be more patient than our opponent.”
Not limited to the small details and intangibles, the Crimson will be proud with its more outward accomplishments, as well. Coach Mike Way has tied program history with his fifth championship victory, pulling even with Bill Doyle who won his titles consecutively from 1993-1997.
“Our coaches are unique in the sense that they don’t just focus on the fitness component, the actual shot selection, and practicing on court itself,” MacGowan said. “They make it a priority of working on and getting the team to allocate numbers of hours for mental preparation and visualization.”
Consistency and mental toughness were items constantly stressed by the coaching staff during the regular season. These qualities shined brightly on both the individual and team levels. Leonard’s fifth-game rally may be the most glaring example of the Crimson philosophy in effect. But Harvard players maintained leads and converted points throughout the tournament, each minor shot contributing to the eventual title.
Playing at Princeton’s Jadwin Court, the two Ivy League rivals now have the same amount of championship victories. But one team—Harvard—continues to rise.
With a slice of revenge against Penn, the last team to hand the Crimson a loss, Harvard has pushed its two-year win streak to 38 games. Moreover, the team did not give up more than two matches in a single matchup this entire season, after winning 5-4 in last year’s semifinal and championship matchups.
While the road continues for Harvard squash, it ends for four Crimson seniors. But their journeys could not have had a sweeter conclusion.
MacGowan, captain Caroline Monrad, Katie Tutrone, and Keegan Mendez went an incredible 42-0 on the season.
“This team, especially, has been really united—united from the get-go,” said Kennedy. “We’re all such great friends and that’s mainly because the seniors are just so inclusive, and they are so welcoming, and they make everyone feel at home. It felt like a family straight away.”
The seniors might not being turning professional like Amanda Sobhy ‘16, Sabrina’s sister, but just like the current No. 6 player in the world, they won three national championships. And that is something the 2017 graduates will take with them well beyond their Harvard years.
Meanwhile, the top half of Harvard’s lineup returns for another year of competition, along with a strong supporting cast and new recruits. The numbers suggest more growth and greatness, but only time will tell.
—Staff Writer William Quan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This photo accompanying this article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
A previous version of this story was accompanied by a photo in which a player was incorrectly identified as Sue Ann Yong '18. In fact, the player in that photo was Julianne Chu '15. The photo has since been replaced to reflect this.
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