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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Cornell Takes it to Trinity

The Trinity College Mascot above the squash offices, a blue and yelllow Bantam
The Trinity College Men's Squash Team has won two hundred and fifty consecutive college matches over the course of the last thirteen years. It is the longest unbeaten streak in the history of US college sports. The men's team coach, Paul Assaiante, is now a legend of the game and is the current US National head coach. He even consults for the New England Patriots football team. He knows how to get the best out of a sports team.

But today, Friday January thirteenth, at 12pm, he humbly stands on his favorite court, the one next to his office, hitting the ball in a friendly practice game with a few of his students. He has a huge playful smile on his face. There is music blaring. Everyone is having fun. Paul looks completely at ease and his enthusiasm is infectious. He is keeping his boys calm and relaxed before their first big test of the season in the match against Cornell later in the day.

Now, many pundits and bloggers (myself included) have predicted, purely based on paper, that this year Trinity will lose a college match and the streak will be over. Trinity College has come very close to losing many times in the last few years, and this season they have lost a few top players, who have graduated from college. And the other college teams have gained strong players at the top of their respective line ups. Trinity's strength relative to the other teams still remains in its depth though. They have good squash players all the way down to number nine. The schools who are their biggest competition have recruited some very strong squash players for the top of their line ups. In the next week Trinity plays more of these schools, notably Yale and Harvard, but their first big test is against Cornell, who look extremely strong and may very well be the team to end the streak.

And, for the superstitious, it was Friday the thirteenth and anything can happen, right.

When I walked into the Ferris Athletic Center just after the 5pm start, the cheering from the George Kellner squash complex on the third floor could be heard from the entrance to the building. Clearly, the matches had begun and already it was tightly contested.

Perhaps this was to be the end of an era. The large crowd of Cornell spectators who came down to Hartford to watch certainly thought so. In the early stages of the evening, the Cornell cries of support were loud and overshadowed that of the Trinity faithful. The Cornell clan came to support their team and to witness what I am sure they had hoped would be a historic victory. And so did I, admittedly, but only so that I could reflect on Trinity's incredible achievement and write about how gracious they were in defeat, of course...(!)

On court six, Trinity number six Juan Moses Flores is in a huge battle. He is 1-0 down in games and now 1-1 in points in the second game when I go over to watch. He wins the next long rally and Assaiante comes over to the court and calls to the predominantly blue and yellow Trinity crowd behind that court to encourage him. He knows which of his players need the support and when. He knows his boys well and can tell by their body language where they stand in a match. Moses plays well but the Cornell player is retrieving well and he gutses it out and wins the match 3-0. First blood to Cornell.

Trinity are one match down and it is best of nine matches; first to win five wins the whole thing. A few minutes later Paul has few quiet words with Moses, in between the games he is refereeing. Paul looks earnest, but I am sure he had nothing but words of encouragement and praise for the young man. It is just a sport after all. And Moses did his best. That is all Paul ever asks of his players.

Meanwhile, on neighboring court five, Trinity’s number nine, Elroy Leong, a good left handed player, comes back after losing the first game to tie the match at 1-1. The third game is very tight. The crowd support is split evenly in their support for the the two men on court. The game is close and Leong saves two game balls at 10-7 in the third but eventually goes down in that game. The Cornell player looks solid in the fourth. Assaiante is encouraging Leong from the back with nods and stares. The referee calls are bothering Leong though, and he starts making errors. The pressure is getting to him. He ends up match ball down in the fourth. He saves a few points but goes down in the end. Cornell are two love up in matches at this point.

Fortunately for Trinity, the number three match result on the glass court in the hall next door is a bit of a foregone conclusion. Miled Zarazua, a player who is making his debut for the team after only just being cleared to play by the CSA, wins it for Trinity 3-0 in pretty orderly fashion. Zarazua is the Mexican junior champion and big things are expected of him, his win at three was no surprise. But Trinity are still 2-1 down and, most notably, they have lost at numbers nine and six. Everyone knows (or thinks) that the Bantams are banking on their lower order players for the win. So the score line theoretically does not bode well for them. The Cornell supporters are visibly excited. Their collective sense of belief in the real possibility of a win is growing by the second.

Next up on court six for Trinity is an energetic likeable young man from Bloemfontein, South Africa named Reinhold ('Rye') Hergeth. Trinity has actually had a host of players from that small town in the past. Rye is playing a kid from Toronto. The Canadian is good, but he appears somewhat overconfident. Rye comes out of the gate looking strong, he is all business. He knows his team is down and he fully understands the consequences of his match. If he loses, his team goes three one down in matches and they will be in big trouble.

Rye is totally focused on the task at hand and is playing extremely well in this match. He is hitting very tight drops and making some really good angled shots on the front wall, ala Amr Shabana, that finish just above the tin. He is catching his opponent with these a lot. Then he hits a Ramy Ashour style backhand volley cross court nick to effectively finish off the first game. He continues to use more flicks and hits more nicks in the second. He is on fire. Rye wins the second game and, after the final point of this game is over, his opponent hits the ball away in complete frustration, as he is surprised to be losing and is angry with himself. Rye ignores it and just opens the door anyway, and steps aside to allow his opponent to exit first, just like he did at the end of the first game which he won. Reinhold is a complete gentleman, even at the height of battle. The Cornell player is slow to return to the court. Rye has been back on court for about sixty seconds already, hitting the ball to himself; he wants to finish this.

At the start of the third, Rye works his counterpart from corner to corner with deft touch and perfect length. Also, he takes the ball extremely early and this pace is too quick for the Cornell player. Rye is playing out of his skin at this point, he looks like any professional squash player you can watch at the Tournament of Champions in New York. This match is over. Rye has squared the overall score against Cornell at 2-2. There is no big applause when Rye wins his match, everyone is watching the number two match on court one, the all glass court. Nevertheless, very importantly, Rye has firmly exclaimed (mostly for the benefit of his teammates) that Trinity will not let go of their number one status without a fight.

After Rye's short match ended, Trinity number eight, Mustafa 'Moose' Hamada, is still busy on court five. He hears of Rye's swift victory and is energized by this good news. He completely takes control of his match. I think this is a match Trinity expected to win anyway. 'Moose' is confident and finishes off his opponent in three. The overall score goes to 3-2 Trinity. The momentum has shifted.

At this point the number two’s are still busy on the glass court. The large crowd, which covers the sides and the overhanging balcony, is split evenly behind the two players. The rallies have been long and the game score is still only at 1-1. The two players are having a huge battle. Most of the crowd is watching this match. No surprise, these are two exceptionally good squash players.

Antonio 'Rico Suave' Diaz Glez, the Trinity player, is physically much bigger than the Cornell guy but Rico is getting outmuscled during all the interference and is, somewhat surprisingly, playing through what should have been many lets and strokes for him. Rico is a talented and very honest squash player. You can see he wants to win it fair and square. He does not complain when he is knocked off the ball or when the interference is unnecessary, he just plays through it, and hangs in there.  He is playing like a champion.

The match is incredibly close. There is nothing between these two. After going 2-1 down, Rico regroups and has a phenomenal fourth and and the fifth and deciding game ensues.

In the end Rico is match ball down at 10-9 in the fifth. After a long hard rally he saves the point, much to the crowd’s delight, but quickly ends up match ball down again at 11-10. He plays admirably and holds that point too. And then wins the next to earn Trinity a match ball. He turns and glares at the huddle of his fellow Bantam teammates. He knows he has done it and he wanted his teammates to know it too.  It was a short but meaningful moment. These guys are a strong unit. They all knew what was at stake. After a long impressively tight final rally, Rico wins it. The home section of the crowd goes crazy.

Rico just pulled off an epic come from behind win. Had he lost, the overall score between the teams would have been tied at 3-3 with three matches to play. This means that the entire tie would go down to the wire and be won by one match by either team. Instead, Trinity go 4-2 up and need to win only one of the next three matches in order to take the tie. It was almost over at this point.

Paul Assaiante emerges back into the main arena by courts five and six. He has a steely look on his face and a glint in his eye. He walks by the back of the courts slowly, and gives a little smile to the crowd beside him. He knows the tide has turned and he senses victory. This is the first time I have seen him smile this evening. Also, when I see this, I feel a twinge of embarrassment, given that I previously predicted that Trinity would lose this season. But I am not really that embarrassed, I am happy that the Trinity guys are winning. I think they deserve it.

Next up are numbers four, Johan Detter, number seven, Matthew 'Mackie' Mackin, and number one, Vikram Malhotra. The starts are staggered with Johan up first, then Mackie starting a little after, then Vikram on court one next door. The crowd knows that any one of these three gents can finish it off for Trinity and everything goes quiet for a little while. The anticipation in the air is palpable.

The first of the final three deciding matches to kick off are the number fours on the team. Johan Detter is the younger brother of Trinity legend, Gustav Detter (Gustav saved the streak a few years back with a come from behind win of his own). Johan is playing against a Cornell player with the same risk averse style of play as himself and they are in a war of attrition. After a bad loss in the second game, with the match tied at 1-1, Johan has a lot to hear from Coach Paul. Johan is seated next to him and switches out of his sweaty shirt into a fresh one. I am sure Paul reminded him that they only needed one more win out of three matches to finish it and beat Cornell and that he should take his time about it. He needed to shake off that second game. There was no rush to win.  Trinity had the advantage.

Johan returns to the court and starts off strong. Next door, after a somewhat long warm up period, the number sevens have finally started play. A few minutes later the number ones will step on court to begin their warm up. By now, Johan is well into his third game; he is looking mentally refreshed and stronger. His teammate, Rico (who just came back from near death during his match) shouts a word of encouragement to Johan from the back of the court. The bonds in this team are strong. These guys bleed for each other.

The third game is hard going for both players on court. The Cornell kid is fit and is ready to run. He has extremely efficient feet and hands. But neither player is going for anything. The rallies are endless. I count the exchanges. They have numerous rallies in excess of fifty shots. These players are running each other into the ground. Neither wants to be the one to potentially screw up and end the evening's fortunes for his respective teammates. Understandably.

Mackie comes off court five after winning a tight first game and gets word of Johan's efforts. Detter is killing himself next door. Paul has a quiet word with Rye, who is refereeing the Detter match, no doubt to give him the good news from court six where Mackie is a game up and looking strong. Paul has a broad smile on his face by now. A few minutes later, Johan nicks a forehand deep cross court to go 9-7 and then closes out game three. He is 2-1 up and Trinity are one squash game away from victory.

Mackie is the Trinity number seven and he is totally fired up when he hears of his teammate's efforts. Right about now the number one's are starting play.

As Detter resumes his fourth game with a 2-1 lead the players have another incredibly long rally. Johan's opponent looks exhausted now. This has been very clean, very disciplined squash by both players. These guys are both trying not to make an error. But Detter is playing a little tighter and is taking the ball a little earlier and he has a reach advantage. This marginal difference is counting. His opponent tires to the point where Detter is visibly in control now. After five of the longest hardest rallies you can imagine the Cornell player is doubled over and has both hands on his knees. It looks like it is all over and Johan will be the one to deliver the killer blow.

Little does Detter know that he has inspired Mackie who is already 10-4 up in the third and has numerous match balls to finish it. It takes three more rallies to finish off his opponent but when he does the Trinity gallery just erupts. They have done it!!

At this very moment Detter serves with his first match ball. His opponent is diving and sliding on his knee pads to all corners of the court in absolute desperation. These players heard the roar from next door, but that could mean anything, they don't know it is over and Trinity have already won.

The best part is, in between the time that Detter and Mackie have been dueling their respective opponents, next door the Trinity number one, Malhotra, has just crushed his opponent 3-0. I did not see a point of it. The match could have been barely twenty minutes, not even. A large crowd of yellow and blue rushes over to watch Detter finish. It takes literally four match balls, including two additional let rallies, but he wins it in front of the whole Trinity crowd. In a way, he started it and he finished it. A fitting end.

The unity of this team is tangible and beautiful to witness.

If Paul Assaiante's goal is to remove fear and engender collective pride and responsibility in his players in order to bring out their best on court, then he has totally succeeded. Again. And it really showed tonight. Anything could have happened when they were two matches down, but the boys got through it as a team.

And thereby the Trinity winning streak remains intact. I think it is safe to say that the rumors of their demise were greatly exaggerated. At least for now...

Any team who wants to beat them in the next few weeks is seriously up against it.

The full results are at USSquash.com
wall of recognition at the back of Trinity's George Kellner Squash Complex

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