The stage seemed set for something magical to happen at Payne Whitney. The squash galleries were still rocking from a thrilling women’s squash match that went down to the final serve. Many of the squash regulars — parents wearing suits and toting copies of the Wall Street Journal — poked their way around a teeming young crowd that seemed right out of a fall Saturday at the Yale Bowl. But the dynasty from Hartford was just a little too strong, the essential breaks came just a little too infrequently, and despite an admirable performance, the Bulldogs will have to wait til at least late February before they get another crack at Trinity.
Trinity men’s squash (7-0) extended its all-time NCAA consecutive win streak to 132 games last night with a 7-2 win over the Elis (7-1, 3-1 Ivy). Yalies of all kinds packed the Brady Squash Center to capacity to watch a Yale team put up their best effort against the Bantams in recent memory, with a finish much tighter than the final score might indicate.
“Of course I’m disappointed, but I’m proud of this team,” Yale head coach Dave Talbott said. “I thought we played real well, and if just a couple of things went differently, we wouldn’t be talking 7-2, we might be talking 5-4. We might have been talking a win.”
From the get go, last night’s affair had the makings of something a little more animated than the norm. The opening ceremony, with the spiffily dressed coaching staffs making speeches and introductions, was at some points drowned out by cheers and hollers from both the home crowd and a sizeable Trinity contingent that had staked out the front rows behind the main exhibition court. As the No. 2 match kicked off, with Bantam Shaun Johnstone and Nick Chirls ’07 taking center stage, Bulldog fans began a good-natured “U-S-A” chant, a reference to Yale’s chiefly home-grown squad compared to Trinity’s almost exclusively international roster.
“The fans here are great, and quite knowledgable about the sport,” Trinity head coach Paul Assiante said. “With the ‘USA’ chant and all, this is what squash should be, the fans can’t be afraid. It should be like a basketball game.”
But things turned sour pretty quickly for the Bulldogs in the first set of matches. Chirls put up a series of good rallies in his first few games but could not seem to mount a run against Johnstone. The tone became just as hushed around the rest of the gallery, as every Bulldog playing dropped their first game, then fared just as badly the second time around. Minutes after a rollicking introduction, there were four Yalies down 0-2.
At the far exhibition court, the No. 4 match between Yale’s Max Samuel ’08 and Trinity’s Sahil Vora got particularly heated. Vora seemed to be intentionally blocking Samuel at certain points, and animated exchanges ensued between Vora, the hometown fans, and occasionally the scorekeepers. Samuel ended up falling in three sets and noted afterwards that a big crowd can be both a blessing and a curse.
“Intensity can be good or bad, it depends on who you’re playing,” he said. “Sometimes the other player can get in your way and do things to get in your head, and with a crowd sometimes it can just get too exciting. The key is to find a good medium.”
Although every player in the first set of matches lost in shutouts except for Avner Geva ’06, who at No. 6 lost 3-1, excitement seemed to be mounting again in anticipation of No. 1 Julian Illingworth’s slot. The national singles champion was matched up against rookie Gustav Detter, a sandy-haired Swede making his first appearance in New Haven. Illingworth entered to a rock star’s welcome from the crowd, but Yale’s captain acknowledged that he had a hard time focusing at the beginning.
“After I came out, I wish I could have been a little more focused,” Illingworth said. “In the first match, and at some points in the third match, I was geared a bit too much towards just making some cool points. And I had seen [Detter] play before, but I didn’t expect him to come out as good as he was.”
But by the end of the match, Illingworth had returned to the form that has made him one of the premier players in the nation. He needed four sets (9-6, 9-2, 4-9, 9-4) to put down his Bantam counterpart and left to an ovation from a visibly dazzled crowd.
At the other side of the facility, matches were heating up too. Ho Ming Chiu ’08 became only the second Eli of the night besides his captain to win a first set at No. 3, though he would eventually fall in five.
Perhaps the feel-good story of the night happened in the latest-running match at No. 9, where freshman Francis Johnson ’09 fell two games down against Simba Muhwati. A rousing pack of fans migrated behind his court after the No. 1 match ended, and a reenergized Johnson stormed back in the last three for the riveting 3-2 triumph.
“Outstanding, that’s all I can say,” Talbott said. “He’s our best freshman, and with more work we hope for a lot more of this out of him.”
In the end, Yale only managed two wins in nine tries, although Chiu and Andrew Vinci ’06 both won tight game fours to take their matches to the limit.
After lauding Talbott as the best coach in the country today during his introductory speech at the opening ceremony, Assaiante had nothing but positive things to say about the surprisingly strong Bulldog effort.
“They were better than I expected,” he said. “I knew they would come out with courage, but I didn’t expect this many five game matches. My little freshman was strong against Julian, but that kid’s a magician. If a Trinity kid isn’t going to be national champion, I’m definitely rooting for him.”