With their hopes for a national championship title on the line, the Yale women’s squash team needed their first seed Michelle Quibell ’06 to triumph over the top-ranked woman in collegiate squash — Trinity’s Amina Helal. Quibell won 3-1 and Yale took one giant leap towards its goal, downing the top team in the nation 5-4.
After getting blanked by Trinity 9-0 in the Howe Cup finals and suffering a 7-2 loss to the Bantams during the regular season, Yale head coach Mark Talbott was eager for the challenge to dethrone the national champions this time around.
“Trinity’s been so dominant the last few years and we finally have a team that can compete with them,” Talbott said. “This was definitely the most nervous I’ve ever been in my six years here [as coach].”
Yale looked on pace for a repeat performance early on at the Brady Squash Center last night. The Elis dropped their first three matches — second seed Amy Gross ’06 and sixth seed Lauren McCrery ’07 each lost their respective matches 1-3, and fourth-seeded Frances Ho ’05 was blanked 0-3.
But the Bulldogs flexed their depth and rebounded, with victories in the bottom three spots. Yale’s ninth-seeded Sarah Coleman ’05 and eighth seed Lauren Doline ’05 won convincingly, with scores of 3-0 and 3-1, respectively. Seventh-seeded Kate Rapisarda ’07 tied the score 3-3 with a 3-0 blanking.
Yale and Trinity split the next two matches. The Eli third spot Catherine McLeod ’07 captured a solid 3-0 victory over Trinity’s star freshman Vaidehi Reddy while Yale’s fifth seed Rachita Vora ’06 fell 3-1.
With the bottom eight matches concluded, the Bulldogs and the Bantams were even with four victories apiece. Spectators from the other matches edged closer to the Nicholas F. Brady ’52 Exhibition Court and fans in a packed Brady Squash Center held their collective breaths as Quibell and Helal battled for what could eventually prove to be the match that determines the national championship.
Quibell got up early in the first game, opening with five straight points, but ultimately lost 7-9. In the next game, Quibell rebounded, winning convincingly 9-1. In a tense third game that was tied for most of the way, Quibell pulled out a hard-fought 9-6 victory.
With the bleachers packed to capacity and the crowd two or three rows deep on the balcony, Quibell and Helal commenced game four. The crowd exploded as Quibell won the opening point, but grew quieter as she got down 2-3. Then, to the joy of the energized crowd, Quibell won seven straight points to seal the Yale victory.
“I went in knowing that my match would be a clutch match,” Quibell said. “But I didn’t know it would come down to that match — I didn’t even know it came down to that match during the match.”
After Quibell’s victory the team stormed the court in celebration, with captain Devon Dalzell ’04 pointing a finger to the ceiling, a sign of the new number one in women’s squash.
“This is the most amazing victory I have ever — ” an ecstatic Dalzell broke off.
The Eli victory ends a Bantam 29-match unbeaten streak stretching back to the 2000-2001 season. Trinity, two-time defending national champion, was expected to be the toughest challenge for the Elis this season.
Talbott said he grew worried after Yale dropped the five and six spots and the match came down to Quibell, who went 1-1 against Helal last season in head-to-head action.
“It’s a lot of pressure to put on Michelle Quibell, playing Trinity who’s the reigning champion,” Talbott said. “She’s amazing.”
But the Elis’ landmark victory by no means belonged to Quibell alone. Coming into last night’s match, Amy Gross had not played for a week due to a nagging leg injury. But Gross’ presence allowed Talbott to maintain his lineup.
“I was a little slow,” Gross said. “I was a little tired because I haven’t been playing. I was just glad I could play.”
The grit shown by Gross is emblematic of the hard work that has defined this season compared to last season. Quibell recalled that, last season, the Bulldogs were not in good enough shape and often went into matches too cocky.
“It’s a classic example of ‘hard work pays off,’” Quibell said. “This match, we went in, we trained as hard as we could, and I think our fitness was really key.”
Talbott said the future is bright with so many high-caliber young players on the team, but he gave much praise to his two seniors, Abbie McDonough ’04 and Dalzell, who he said are largely responsible for where Eli women’s squash stands today.
“My two seniors, Abbie McDonough and Devon [Dalzell],” Talbott said. “I give those guys a lot of credit because they sort of started the whole roll in this thing — they were really two of the first ranked juniors I had. I’ve just gotten really good recruiting classes the last two years and I give a lot of credit to Devon and Abbie.”
Despite the critical victory, the Bulldogs will still face stiff challenges to their national title bid, especially in the form of Harvard on Feb. 14. But the Elis will likely go forth as the top-ranked team in the nation.