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Monday, February 21, 2011

A Squash Dynasty

When I was in college, they called them "the preppy sports." The "they" were my friends who came from middle-class backgrounds and played the "traditional" sports of football, basketball and baseball. They came from towns and public schools that didn't offer squash, lacrosse or golf, and, as for golf, tennis and swimming, well, they appeared to be vestiges for those who had the money to spend on private lessons and on private clubs. The implication was that it was much easier to excel at those sports because the masses didn't play them (okay, there are public-school bastions for lacrosse on Long Island, near Syracuse, and in some parts of the Baltimore area, but the "they" would have insisted that lacrosse, among and amidst the others, was still a "preppy" sport).

I don't follow all of these developments all that closely today, except to say that there are certain sports that are hyper-competitive in suburbia because of the parents' inclination to spend time and money on them and perhaps because of a Darwinism that says, "play soccer, because while the mass of people playing it might be growing, the best athletes still are playing football and basketball, and, if you don't believe it, compare the U.S. World Cup teams with those in the NFL and NBA, and in terms of excellence, well, the former don't compare with the latter." I suppose that's a long-winded way of saying that there are sports where the money and efforts of those with homes with ample backyards spend their time because, well, junior and juniorette might be able to draw the attention of some college whereas if they hooped they wouldn't measure up. That's harsh, I suppose, but when you write about things you shouldn't pull your punches too much.

And as for squash. . .

On the one hand, it's a fast-paced, great game that's fun to play and not for those who aren't in shape. On the other hand, traditionally in the U.S. it's been only for the well-heeled, as you needed to go to a school that has courts (read: expensive private and boarding schools) or have parents who belong to a club that has them (read: parents who either inherited money or earned it and are willing to pay for the private schools and clubs and lessons). In stark contrast, in other parts of the world (read: the former British empire), squash is more accessible to the masses.

Which led to this bit of Darwinism at the collegiate level. You'd naturally think that Harvard, Yale and Princeton would dominate because, well, they are elite schools who attract kids from the elite boarding and private schools who can pay the freight and a few of whom actually can play squash with authority. That logic makes sense because, well, you just wouldn't figure to see squash in the SEC. Could you imagine Auburn alums taking glee over beating Georgia 9-0 in a squash match? Remember the paradigm -- SEC and squash in the northeastern part of the U.S. mean Securities and Exchange Commission and a racquet sport; SEC and squash in the southeastern part of the U.S. mean Southeastern Conference and something you eat with your evening meal. (For Google afficionados, SEC comes up with the Northeast's interpretation about 6 times before you get to the athletic conference; Google squash, and you get the sport #1 and the vegetable #2).

Back from the digression, if you thought Harvard, Yale and Princeton, you'd be wrong. They are all good at squash, but none are the best. In fact, the best collegiate squash program -- by far -- is at Division III Trinity in Hartford, Connecticut. Trinity has won over 230 straight matches because its head coach prevailed upon the school's president to realize that in order to dominate, the school needed to recruit internationally. Translated, it means, as the linked article suggests, that either U.S. squash isn't very good or that it pales in comparison to squash around the world. And the reason is quite simple -- the competition. Kids around the world play against a bigger pool of other kids, and some of the most athletic kids in those countries focus on squash. In contrast, the average combination guard in a big city probably hasn't heard of the game, let alone considered it. But, imagine, if Chris Paul or Allen Iverson were to play squash -- given their athleticism and competitive nature, it would be easy to envision that they'd beat even the most skilled international players.

So, what Trinity did was quite simple -- go to the places with the best players and diversity your student body to boot. And they dominate, so much so that they're deemed the evil empire in collegiate squash, not that you'd ever really figure on attaching the word "evil" to a sport like squash, which creates visions of the men singing four-part harmony at the Heritage Club in "Trading Places." (Famous dialogue: "Looking good, Louis." "Feeling good. . . Todd.").

When you think of a dynasty in sports, you think of the Yankees from the '20's through the early 60's, you think Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, and, obviously, the Boston Celtics. You think about various collegiate football programs, John Wooden's UCLA basketball teams, Geno Auriemma's recent run at UConn for women's basketball, and I'm sure many others that are too obscure for even me. What you probably don't think about is squash.

Read the linked article and see if you identify with an elite academic institution that gets dissed when compared to its Ivy and Little 3 peers -- and uses that dissing as a motivator, especially in the world of intercollegiate squash.

For what it's worth.