It’s hard to believe when you can only dream.
When David Ryan stepped on the court on Sunday during No. 3 Harvard’s championship battle against No. 1 Trinity, it was the last match of his squash career. Trinity had already secured the national championship during the first two waves after winning the requisite five matches. Ryan was only playing for pride— primarily playing in the number four slot for the Crimson during the year, there was no way of qualifying for the national individual tournament.
After trading the first four games with the Bantam’s Rick Penders, a blowout final stanza was enough to give Ryan the victory. He would walk away from the centerpiece of his athletic and academic experience with some personal pride, but also collective disappointment that Harvard lost out on the national title to the same team for the second straight year. In his final year, Ryan could not captain his class or team to a national championship. Or so he thought.
"I just thought I had nothing to lose and why not just go for it all," Ryan said.
The following days of reflection, using time usually reserved for playing squash, were cut short when coach called. After athletes higher in the rankings dropped out of the tournament due to injury, Ryan snatched up the offer of a bid into the College Squash Association (CSA) national individual championship just a couple days before the competition. Ryan had one more chance to play and one more chance to control the outcome. He would not squander that opportunity.
The funny thing is that the accomplishment that defined his season is also the thing that distracts from the outstanding effort that was his senior year campaign. After injuries in previous years and a roller-coaster of lineup locations—number five freshman year, number one sophomore year, number five junior year, and number four senior year, Ryan played his final stanza of squash flawlessly.
The senior, including his 7-0 performance in postseason contests, went a perfect 19-0 on the season. This stood as the best individual performance by a consistent starter on men’s squash, in front of sophomores Timothy Brownell (three losses) and Sean Hughes (two losses—including the first of his collegiate career).
As primarily the number four player in the Crimson’s lineup this past season, Ryan played in the third wave. This allowed him the opportunity to play late into the competition and potentially affect the outcome of the match. Even before the postseason, the senior from Adams House led by example. Ryan went 12-0 in the regular season and 12-0 in the fourth slot in all team competition, including the CSA team national championship series. In tandem with his contributions as a co-captain, he provided a consistent on-the-court presence—down to his final, meaningless match.
But as the glass door closed for the final time during team competition, a new one opened.
As eager as he may had been to seize this next opportunity, Ryan would now have to square off the nation’s best young players that represented the top seeds from their schools. Without the experience of facing top talent in competition for the past two years, Ryan stepped into a veritable gauntlet. The Irishman was completely unfamiliar with his opponents except semifinal opponent and teammate Brownell. He had never faced his challengers in competition— with the exception of his second round Dartmouth opponent that took part in a consolation match at the CSA team national championship during their sophomore years.
The beauty of the situation, however, is not only that Ryan had not meaningfully tangled with his opponents, but also that the opponents had not experience with the upstart. Ryan keyed up on this and flipped the script, forcing the top guns on their heels after they had expected to easily dispatch the lowly 14th seed.
“I just thought I had nothing to lose and why not just go for it all,” Ryan said.
In the opening round, Ryan faced Penn’s number one, Andrew Douglas, to kick off the tournament. Ryan jumped out to a quick two-game lead against the third seed on that Friday morning at the George Washington University hitting grounds, breezing by and conceding just 12 points in the first two games. Douglas woke up in the third game, but by then the upset alert had already sounded and Ryan took match ball in the next frame.
Upsetting one of the top tournament favorites likely sparked a bit of confidence, but the next round only brought more high-level competition, this time in the form of Dartmouth’s Alvin Heumann.
However, the difference between men’s squash co-captain David Ryan and the 2013 Harvard men’s basketball team is—beside the obviously contrasts—that the Dublin native didn’t get knocked out in the second round after beginning the tournament as the 14th seed.
Despite facing him in the national team championship tournament two years prior, Ryan remained unfamiliar with the Big Green product. But a bit of their previous matchup could have lingered because, for the second time, Ryan swept the match against Heumann with a tidy third game after winning by the minimum margin in the first two. Ryan rolled through the first day of competition and earned a spot in the semifinal by dropping just one game.
Coming into Saturday afternoon, Ryan was just one of the successes and storylines from Harvard squash. Both the men’s and women’s teams had managed to place three players in the semifinal round, guaranteeing the Crimson a slot in each of title games.
Saadeldin Abouaish took on fellow No. 1 Kush Kumar in the early semifinal hoping for a better result than the sweep during the team national championship final. But the Harvard sophomore met an identical fate and sent off the top overall seed to the national final.
Just a couple of hours after the lopsided first semifinal, Ryan was engaged in a tight contest to decide the challenger that would face the awaiting former pro and heir apparent to the national championship. The five-set thriller read like a battle with each player going punch for punch, except for the fact that the two young athletes were teammates. Ryan took the first and third games with ease, while Brownell only won by two points in the even frames. The product of high talent and many challenge matches between the teammates was a final, fifth game battle to get to championship game. In the end, Ryan pulled out on top with an 11-7 final frame.
The long match left little time to celebrate before the midday championship bout, although each stage in the tournament was one that Ryan had not foreseen and must have appreciated. And on paper, it seemed likely that this would be his last time to celebrate.
Kumar came into the match better rested after his semifinal finished in the minimum during the previous afternoon. But the Trinity sophomore may have been too relaxed, as seen by Ryan’s quick 11-4 first game victory. From there, the two All-Americans traded until the fifth game.
Characteristic of both of Ryan’s semifinal and final, the final game of the 2017-18 squash season was a back-and-forth affair. The Bantam was able to arrive at championship point, 10-8, with two match balls in hand. At that time, it seemed to line up for the 21-year old sophomore from Chennai, India—the journey from the pro circuit to a small liberal-arts college in Hartford, Conn. would result in his second national championship of the season.
Ryan disrupted this rather neat narrative by saving two match points, and then striking twice more to capture the CSA individual national championship in his final squash game ever. (Citing a lack of financial opportunities on the squash circuit, Ryan is currently set on not continuing his squash career at the professional level.)
Instead, the Crimson’s newest national champion is content leaving the program with one sweet taste of victory left forever in his mouth, in addition to all the contributions responsibilities stemming from his captainship.
“I was not expecting the pressures and the challenges I would face,” Ryan said. “It was almost like being a father and having 17 children and making sure everything is going perfectly.”
The Harvard squash program has a combined 49 team national championships. It may seem like each one is inevitable and will venture by soon or later. But for even for a small, 12-player team like women’s squash, the logistics and efforts to run a smooth season are immense.
“Recognizing how much effort and how much work goes into making a team come together has really given me a different perspective and appreciated the whole process much more,” said women’s squash co-captain Sue Ann Yong.
As difficult as it is to provide for so many close friends, doing so was just as rewarding.
“I have to say the most memorable part of the year was definitely the moments after being the individual championship,” Ryan said. “The teammates that were actually at the tournament stormed the court. My coaches were almost in tears. And when I got back to the airport in Boston, my whole team was there holding posters and champagne and screaming my name. It didn’t feel like an individual championship. It felt like winning a team championship.”
—Staff writer William Quan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.