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The stage was set for what was bound to be a legendary final for the men’s squash team nationals. With the score tied at four matches even, Harvard’s hopes rested on the shoulders of sophomore Ido Burstein, who took the court against the challenger from the University of Pennsylvania in the final and deciding match of the tournament.
A win would mean a national title for the team, personal glory, and a new trophy for the trophy case. All of this riding on one race to three games between two exceptional athletes from the two best schools in the college squash circuit.
Thursday night, No. 2 Harvard (15-1, 6-1 Ivy League) men’s squash flew down to Philadelphia, Pa., to compete for the coveted Potter Cup in the College Squash Association’s (CSA) national championship.
The team has had its eyes on the Potter Cup since the beginning of the season. While Harvard has demonstrated its fortitude on the court, coasting to a second place finish in the Ivy League, it knew it would have to overtake the Quakers to win the national tournament.
Going into the weekend, much hung in the balance, as the Crimson would be facing off against non-Ivy teams it had not faced in the regular season. It also looked ahead to a looming matchup with No.1 Penn (18-1, 6-0 Ivy League), the school responsible for the Crimson’s sole loss this season.
Back in December, first-year Tate Harms had emphasized the team’s prospects for a national championship. Once that goal was only three wins away, Harms said the mindsight of the team changed to remind themselves that nothing in sports was guaranteed.
“We wanted to take the tournament match by match. We just had to take the tournament day by day with full respect for each opponent and each match,” Harms said. “Virginia was our first match. They’re a good team, but we haven’t played them so we weren't sure how our players would line up with their players.”
In Friday’s encounter, Harvard commanded a quick 8-1 win over No. 7 Virginia (12-6) to move on to the semi-finals for the 10th year in a row.
Semi-final action pitted the Crimson against No. 6 Columbia (9-7, 1-5 Ivy League), who had upset No. 3 Trinity College (16-3).
Harvard had beaten Columbia handily in its Ancient Eight engagement last month, 8-1. This time around was no different.
Harms managed an impressive comeback win to take his match three games to two after trailing. Burstein joined in the initial charge, taking his match three games to none. Senior Victor Crouin, along with juniors George Crowne and Marwen Tarek, all contributed three-to-nothing sweeps to the Crimson’s tally, clinching the win and securing Harvard a berth in the finals for the fifth consecutive year.
And thus the Crimson took the courts against its Ivy rivals and the only team to best them this year, the University of Pennsylvania. The stage was set for what would ultimately end up being one of the most exciting CSA finales in recent years.
Crouin posted an impressive victory in the first wave of matches, rebounding from a two-game deficit to win three straight games and the match, propelling Harvard’s campaign to take a 3-2 lead in the overall tally.
Feisty play from Penn and a compelling performance from Tarek ultimately tied the score up at four. Burstein was scheduled to play in this championship deciding match.
“The energy was building with each second,” said Harms, who, having finished his play, got to spectate Burstein’s match with the rest of the Crimson. “We had Penn supporters on one half and Harvard on the other. There weren’t that many of us, but we were just letting him [Burstein] know we were there. When you’re on the court alone, you’re not actually alone. You have your guys there supporting you.”
Despite the energy, Burstein showed poise the entire time, gritting out a victory the first game, 11-9. After the match, Burstein highlighted his pre-game preparation, which allowed him to perform exceptionally under the pressure of a national championship.
“I knew my opponent was a really untraditional player,” he said. “He attacks a lot. So my main goal was to contain it by making him run a lot. And it worked. The coaches really helped with the tactics. I had a plan in my mind which allowed me to be calmer than most people expected.”
The two-point margin of the first game was the closest the Quakers would come to victory. Burstein came into the next two games hungry for a national title.
“I had the momentum with me the entire match,” he said. “The key was to stop my opponent from having any hope, because I know that he is a player who is able to come back. But I knew what I had to do to beat him. I had the tactics in my head. And I am happy that I was able to execute.”
With the help of some heroic shots to the corners, some athletic lunges, and the support of his team, Burstein would go on to win the next two games convincingly, 11-2 and 11-5, securing his first ever national championship and adding another chapter to Harvard’s decorated squash legacy.
“They all stormed the court. I still remember them screaming and smiling. It's a moment I’ll never forget. It was very special,” he recalled.
Coaches and teammates would go on to praise Burstein’s physical abilities and tactical play long after the Potter Cup was hoisted. But the aspect of his play that lifted him up above the good players into the ranks of the great players was his mental fortitude.
“Ido Burstein. Four to four tied matches and he was just as cool as could be. Wow. He played sublimely. Perfect, calm squash,” praised Harms.
If it wants to repeat in 2023, the Crimson will have to regroup, replacing the four graduating seniors, who contributed three national championships during their time in the program.
“We’re really just grateful to the seniors. We have four seniors leaving us this year, and they’re just great guys. They really represent what Harvard squash is: their work ethic, their mannerisms. They’ve given so much to the program,” Harms added.
Burstein reiterated: “We’re losing our 1, 3, 5 and 10 players. Not only are they great players on the team, but they helped guide us through the season. They support us tremendously and the team won't be the same without them. This was a great year to win and I am happy to have won with them.”
The victory marks Harvard’s third straight CSA national title, its 34th Potter Cup victory in program history, and the school’s 150th team national championship overall.
-Staff writer Callum J. Diak can be reached at email@example.com.
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