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Out of all the games on the schedule this season for Harvard women’s squash, this weekend’s slate seemed to be the most compelling. On Saturday, the No. 2 Crimson faced No. 1 Princeton in a grudge match of the unbeatens. Just a day later, the team was set for a rematch of last year’s national championship against No. 7 Penn—led by undefeated star junior Reeham Salah.
But that’s the magic of the team—they make compelling matches on paper seem predetermined. For the third and fourth times, Harvard (10-0, 5-0 Ivy) bended as far as it has all season. The Crimson dropped just one match each day.
For all of the anticlimax, there was supposed to be a matching amount of excitement. The Quakers were supposed to exact revenge on the Cambridge, Mass., squad that had denied the program its second national championship last year. But its top-heavy squad including two-time individual national finalist Salah and seniors Melissa Alves and Marie Stephan had buckled under pressure this season and lost all four of its matchups against top-flight teams.
The real excitement came with the Saturday Ivy League draw: Princeton versus Harvard, led by two of the nation’s best collegiate players and Tournament of Championship participants in Crimson junior Sabrina Sobhy and Tigers senior Olivia Fiechter. The air of suspense quickly evaporated, though, as the star power was rendered null by the depth of Harvard.
HARVARD 8, PENN 1
The danger in this matchup was not that the Crimson couldn’t win the match, but rather that underdog Penn would squirrel a way to victory. The Quakers would have to hang onto dear life and hope that that the top end of its lineup could grind out some wins. It was not without premise. In last year’s national championship, Salah and Alves defeated Sobhy and reigning individual champion Gina Kennedy in the top two slots.
But any intrigue quickly dissipated as Harvard’s first wave swept in straight games, and Kennedy exacted revenge against Alves. Four other games would go the minimum in Harvard’s favor.
Instead the attention was pulled to center court where Sobhy faced off against “The Hammer.” The game followed course with the weekend. Salah won in three games, grounding any hype, which had already fell once it was learned that no rematch of the individual national championship between Salah and the sophomore Kennedy was to take place this weekend.
The courts had already quieted when the tensest matchup of the day occurred between Stephan and Crimson junior Kayley Leonard heated up. Already loaded with history from last year’s national finals when Leonard staved off five straight match points to win in five games, the two tangled—many times literally—in an emotional rematch. The pivotal third game, which eventually put Leonard up 2-1, saw nearly every point dotted with interference claims. Leonard wiggled through to win in four games.
HARVARD 8, PRINCETON 1
Harvard wins by putting the game out of contention early and often. This also means that the strained moments of match day come right as the first serve goes up.
In the first game, Kennedy fell in the first game to freshman Raneem El Torky and things seemed unusually uncertain.
“I was on the first shift and I lost the first game,” Kennedy said. “I knew it was going to be a tough match…The courts are really hot so it’s all about finding your length. The mental work that we’ve been doing has really been helpful to stay calm and in the game.”
This continued into the second game, as Kennedy went down 5-2. But she responded with seven straight points and even up the match. She then won the third by rattling off six straight winners, en route to a four-game victory.
This was as close as top-ranked Princeton got. Harvard kept the Tigers off balance and uncomfortable, no more than Leonard who bageled freshman Grace Doyle in the first game as part of one of five Harvard three-game sweeps.
With victory already established despite still playing the second wave, Sobhy battled Fiechter to five games in an exceptional display of All-American squash, full of long rallies and lead changes.
“I’ve played her probably like 50 times since we were 12 years old and she’s a good friend of mine,” Sobhy said. “So, we’ve been playing together ever since. This was actually the first time she beat me, and she played so well.”
There are two more weeks of team squash, two more weeks to change the status quo, and a Howe Cup at stake. But for now, Harvard, bolstered by depth and top talent alike, has reestablished its number one ranking—if that was ever in doubt.
—Staff writer William Quan can be reached at email@example.com.
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