Thirteen years and 252 straight wins made Trinity squash a dynasty. But Yale, the No. 2 squash powerhouse for three years, was determined to claim some of the glory last Wednesday night.
College squash saw the end of an era when John Roberts ’12 scored his 11th point against Trinity’s Johan Detter that evening, climching hismatch and the contest between the two schools —and ending the longest winning streak in college sports history.
Trinity and Yale had entered the final round of thier match tied 3–3. Despite several clutch dive-saves and a controversial play in which Trinity’s Vikram Malhotra fired a hard shot that hit his opponent’s body, Yale’s No. 1 Kenneth Chan ’13 lost 0–3. Trailing 3–4, the Elis put all of their hope on their last two players, No. 7 Robert Berner ’12 and No. 4 John Roberts ’12.
Berner won his match relatively quickly, tying the teams at 4–4 and putting all of the pressure on teammate Roberts to seal the deal. The hard work of his teammates and coaches, as well as all of the frustrating moments against Trinity in the past all rested on the native of Ireland.
Despite the magnitude of the situation, Roberts had plenty of squash experience to alleviate the pressure: He began playing the sport at age 11.
“My older brother, who also played, was a big influence, and the sport just became addicting,” Roberts said.
Roberts played at his local squash club in Belfast, which was conveniently within walking distance. His years of hard work were recognized when he won the Irish Nationals in his junior year of high school.
“There were only about 30 other juniors,” Roberts said. “Not that many people played, but it was a great experience, especially since I never trained with a coach.”
Despite this milestone, Roberts said he had a few setbacks when he initially started playing squash. At first, he said he lagged behind his competition, and he also had trouble with his knees until he was 17 or 18.
Even with these bumps in the road early in his career, Roberts has gone on to accumulate a 32–19 record at Yale. But no victory was more important than the one last Wednesday.
“It was a great team effort,” Roberts said of the win against Trinity. “We have been trying to beat these guys … since I’ve been here. They beat us in last year’s final round of nationals in a heartbreaking match. It was great to get some revenge.”
Squash matches are played using a three-court system, with the No. 7, 8 and 9 matches played on the first court, the 4, 5 and 6 matches on a second court, and the 1, 2 and 3 matches on a third court. The matches are played in decreasing order, with the No. 1, 4 and 7 matches often occurring simultaneously at the end. But as the other contests wore on, Roberts increasingly came to suspect, and even dread, that his would be the deciding match.
“I had a good feeling that it was going to come down to either me or Robby [Berner],” he said. “The No. 1 match had already finished, and I was confident that Robby was going to win his match, so I thought it would be up to me.”
The top three contests only took 10 games to complete and Malhotra, Trinity’s No. 1 player, dispatched Chan in straight sets to give the Bantams a 4–3 lead. That left Roberts and Berner on the court with Yale needing both wins to secure the victory.
After Roberts’ third game, an 11–7 victory that put him up 2–1 in his match against Detter, he saw Berner come off the court celebrating and knew that all his team’s hopes lay with him. This was the Elis’ moment, a chance to end the longest winning streak in college sports, to forget about last year’s heartbreaking defeat and, for the seniors, to overcome two long years of being second-best.
“I was really amped up when I saw all my teammates there watching and realized we had a chance,” Roberts said. “But I did get a little nervous. I played a really loose game in the fourth [game].”
Detter remained composed even though he was down 2–1 and needed two wins in a row to keep his team’s historic 252-game winning streak alive. He coasted to an 8–1 lead before eventually winning 11–5, sending the match to a fifth game.
This was it: No. 1 against No. 2, four victories apiece and tied 2–2 in the final match, with collegiate sports history on the line.
The tension heightened after Roberts opened up an early 6–3 lead. Detter was defending the streak and facing greater pressure, something Roberts said he kept reminding himself of as the match wore on.
“He’s a nice guy, and he played a very fair match,” Roberts said. “But I think he did freeze up a little bit there at the end.”
With his early lead, Roberts was able to play more conservatively, forcing his opponent to take the risks. He ran off the next four points in a row to get to match point at 10–3.
When asked what was going through his head at that moment, just one point away from history, Roberts gave a little laugh.
“Don’t blow it,” he responded. “I tried to stay composed, and I took plenty of time between points. I just stayed relaxed and tried to block out everything around me. Luckily I was able to win.”
After a point by Detter and a few lets, Roberts finally broke through with the decisive point. The crowd went wild and his teammates stormed the court.
Head coach David Talbott said he was ecstatic and incredibly proud of his team.
“They really wanted this so badly,” Talbott said of his players after the match. “It’s been a four-year journey for the seniors. They put in the work and everybody really wanted to break this streak.”
The view was a little bit different from the other side of the court. Trinity head coach Paul Assaiante said many times during the 13-year streak that he would be relieved when it ends, but now that it actually has, he feels differently.
“Losing really stinks,” Assaiante said in an interview Tuesday night. “Now we are looking in the rear-view mirror, but at the time it was really tough. I didn’t realize before, but the streak really was a burden to the boys. You could see it on their faces when they came into the gym the next day.”
Assaiante told his team that this was only one loss in a long season. He told them that in March, 64 basketball teams will come together to compete for the national championship, and none of them will be undefeated, but one of them still has to win the national title.
Roberts said Yale and Trinity may very well meet in the national finals again this year — for the third time in a row — so while Trinity’s streak may be over, the teams’ rivalry lives on.