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Harvard squash certainly has a decorated past – the team has a history of record-setting winning streaks, championing many Ivy League titles, and consistently taking home the College Squash Association (CSA) prize for the post-season success. And after what the Crimson squash program produced over the past two weekends of CSA team competition, Harvard also has a decorated present: both the men’s and women’s teams managed to overcome two very talented Trinity College squads to win the CSA team title for the fourth and eighth consecutive time, respectively.
The victory on the men's side comes as little surprise. This season, No. 1 Harvard (17-0, 6-0 Ivy) has been nothing but dominant, and the Crimson was a heavy favorite all year to win the Potter Cup. Nonetheless, when senior Marwan Tarek won the last point against his No. 6 Trinity College (17-5) opponent to seal the win for the Crimson, the George A. Kellner Squash Center in Hartford, C.T. erupted into cheers that made it seem as if Harvard had just completed the upset of the century.
The true underdogs in the match-up were the Trinity College Bantam. The route to the CSA finals forced the Bantam to make two impressive upsets. Even in the first match, the relatively low-seeded Trinity College team was pitted against a strong No. 3 Princeton (11-4) that had managed to take two individual matches off of the Crimson back in January.
Fuelled by a rowdy Hartford home crowd, the Bantam found them up four matches to one very quickly against the Tigers. From there, it was Trinity’s game to lose. After recovering from the shock of the first five matches, Princeton, an experienced team, would not go away that easily, as the Tigers rallied to take the next two. But ultimately, in the eight match of the day, the Bantam found its fifth point for the win.
The narrative was similar, albeit more intense for the semifinal bout between Trinity and No. 2 University of Pennsylvania (16-3, 5-1 Ivy). Going into the tournament, the second ranked Quakers’ squad, which Harvard narrowly defeated in last year’s CSA finals in one of the decade’s most thrilling matches, was expected to give the Crimson another challenge for the Potter Cup. Penn had comfortably dispatched the Bantam in the regular season, and only took one loss, which was awarded in a duel against the Crimson, which saw Harvard prevail 5-4. If Penn emerged from the semi-final to play the Crimson again, it was bound to be a competitive game.
However, instead of pulling away from the Bantam after the first match win went to Penn, Trinity stayed within striking distance. With the points tied 4-4, and the Bantam holding the momentum, Harvard began to adjust its expected strategy to plan for a Crimson-Trinity College Potter Cup final.
Harvard’s side of the tournament bracket seemed to be a more solid path. In an expectedly easy victory, the Crimson defeated the No. 8 Cornell Big Red (8-9, 3-4 Ivy), posting almost exclusively sweeps. The battle set a good tone for Harvard’s CSA tournament campaign, with fundamentally solid play and well placed shots dropping in the Crimson’s favor.
The semifinals against the second Connecticut school in the tournament proved to be much more demanding. Harvard ultimately clinched the win against No. 4 Yale (11-4, 3-3 Ivy) after only six matches played; however, each of these matches was a true battle. Senior George Crowne had a particularly tough bout that lasted longer than 70 minutes, as he managed to oust his opponent in five games at the number two spot. Other notable performances came from senior Marwan Tarek and junior Ido Burstein, who were the only two Crimson to sweep their opponents. Worn and tired from the long clash with the Bulldogs, Harvard had to dig deep the next day in the CSA final.
Whether it was Harvard’s fatigue from the day before, or the eternal roar from the Trinity College supporters in the stands, the Potter Cup final saw the Bantam push the Crimson harder than it had been pushed before. Coming off the momentum of two upset wins against top-three teams, Trinity College came into the match with nothing to lose, looking to complete the upset. Harvard fell behind 0-2 after the first two games until great play by sophomore Tate Harms, who posted an incredibly solid tournament, put the Crimson on the board.
Follow-up wins from Burstein — who was last year’s Potter Cup hero in the ninth-match thriller against Penn — and first-year Denis Gilevskiy placed Harvard within one victory of claiming the crown.
In perhaps the most appropriate exit from college team-squash, it was the Crimson co-captain Tarek who posted the final and deciding win to send Harvard home to Cambridge with another trophy. Trading the first two sets with his Bantam opponent Mohamad Sharaf, Tarek dug deep to find composure in a squash facility ready to explode with noise. Claiming a crucial game three, the Cairo native carried his momentum to take over in his fourth and final game of the tournament; up 10-5, Tarek hit a stinging, rising backhand forcing his opponent Sharaf to take a risky overhand spike. And as the tinny sound of the ball hitting the out-of-bounds runner tapered out, a new sound of celebration echoed from the whole Crimson team, who had been standing holding their breath for the final point.
The players flooded the court and piled on to Tarek, celebrating their collective success. This marked the fourth consecutive year that Harvard raised the Potter Cup as national champions of the college squash circuit. Crowne and Tarek played a key role in the Crimson’s wins this season, and the two athletes will leave spaces on the roster tough to fill. However, with a rather young lineup — retaining seven out of nine players — Harvard men's squash will certainly be a team to watch next year as it will look to continue its dynasty.
In the women's side of the CSA tournament, the Bantam also played the foe to the Crimson. Earlier this year, No. 1 Trinity College (18-1) defeated No. 2 Harvard (14-1, 6-0 Ivy) to break Harvard’s 102-match winning streak. Though the Crimson responded to this loss in the second half of the season, winning the Ivy League title, its prospects at the CSA title were still uncertain.
As soon as the CSA tournament weekend began, it seemed fated for these two squash giants to meet again in the finals. On day one, Harvard and Trinity College cleared their opponents from the quarterfinals comfortably. While both matches were tougher, the Crimson and the Bantam both made it out of the semifinals relatively unscathed. The greatly anticipated match-up had come into fruition: it was Harvard’s chance at redemption and Trinity’s chance to finally take the throne once and for all.
“We went in as the second seed and knew that all three matches of the weekend would be challenging. Getting to face Trinity again in the finals was the perfect opportunity for us to avenge our regular season loss,” explained sophomore Brecon Welch on the second chance opportunity to play the top team in a CSA final. “We were definitely excited to play and had the mindset that we wouldn’t come off the court unless we had given everything we had.”
This drive to win seemed to be on display from the beginning. Welch put the Crimson on the scoresheet with a hard fought victory over the Bantam’s Lujan Palacios. Welch, who had fallen to Palacios in the regular season in five games, saw herself in a similar situation again, down two to one heading into a fourth set. This time around, though, Welch found the upper hand. The second-year from Greenwich, C.T. played some of her best squash all season when it mattered most.
“After that [regular season] match [against Trinity College] each and every one of us took it upon ourselves to train hard and look after our bodies so that we could put ourselves in the best spot come Nationals,” Welch stated.
Though sometimes settling for safer shots, Welch was able to keep incredible composure in high-stakes points, outlasting her opponent with endurance and consistent pressure. She secured a close fourth game 11-9, and with the same energy as if playing the first match of the tournament, powered through the fifth, taking it 11-3 and getting Harvard its first point.
First-year Saran Gregory-Nghiem, who has had an impressive rookie season with the Crimson playing at the number two spot, grabbed another point, also winning in a tense five-game match. Harvard’s number three, sophomore Habiba Eldafrawy, added to the Crimson hot-streak, winning her match in straight games, only conceding 16 points. This victory for Eldafrawy marked her twelfth individual win of the season, a Crimson best.
With Harvard on a roll, the Bantam was forced to respond, taking two more games from Harvard. As the dust settled in the Penn Squash Center, though, the scoreboard showed that the Crimson had four points, and Trinity College only had two.
Left to play was junior Marina Stefanoni, taking on Trinity College’s Jana Safy. Stefanoni won the pair’s last encounter, and looked to repeat to clinch the championship for the Crimson. Stefanoni applied continuous pressure to her opponent, taking an early lead. Safy put up a strong fight, making the Harvard number one earn each point. But eventually, the moment came for Stefanoni and the Crimson. Up 10-9 in the third game with the match and the championship on the line, locked in an intense duel along the right wall, Stefanoni made a fake shot left, drew her opponent off balance, and forced an error. The entire Harvard team, that had been watching behind the back glass, burst into cheer. It was evident that this win was important for the entire program.
“Squash is an individual sport but this couldn’t have been more for a team win. Whether it was playing, coaching, or cheering, we all fed off each other’s energy,” said Welch of the winning moment. “It was really amazing to see all of our hard work pay off.”
The Crimson has been putting in immense work in its squash program. Directed by Ivy League Coach of the Year, Mike Way, Harvard squash has been at the top of the league for years. The victory this season marks the eighth straight Howe Cup victory for the women's program. Winning the CSA title in a season that called for perseverance demonstrates better than any just how strong this Crimson squad is, and how strong it will continue to be in the future.
—Staff writer Callum J. Diak can be reached at email@example.com.
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