The women’s squash team was leading Harvard, 4–3, with two games left in its match Sunday afternoon and the Ivy League title on the line.
The two teams’ last regulation match had been the 2011 national championships, in which No. 2 Yale won a 5–4 nailbiter over the No. 1 Cantabs. But Harvard won in a preseason scrimmage this year and has held the national No. 1 ranking since. On Sunday, two weeks before national championsips, Yale (15-1, 6–1 Ivy) was looking to establish itself as the superior team. Harvard (14-0, 7–0), its co-captain and No. 3 Nirasha Guruge said, was looking for revenge.
“Last year was a pretty bad loss,” Guruge said. “It motivated us to train harder and gave us the determination to come down here and get the championship back.”
No matter the Cantabs’ desire for revenge, Yale rebounded from an early 2–1 deficit and built its late 4–3 lead with some surprising victories, including an upset by Kim Hay ’15 at the No. 2 spot and another by Katie Ballaine ’13 at No. 5.
With the overall score at 4–3, the two remaining matches unfolded on neighboring courts, as spectators packed three-deep on the Brady Squash Center balcony and around the door to the court below. On one court, Shihui Mao ’15 contested the No. 7 spot with Harvard’s Sarah Mumanachit, a junior who had been on the losing end of the last — and deciding match — of the 2011 national championship against Yale. On the court next to Mao’s, Alexandra Van Arkel ’12 took on Harvard’s Haley Mendez at the No. 4 spot. One victory in those two matches would clinch the match for Yale.
But neither could convert. Mao lost a five-game battle, Van Arkel lost 3–0 despite a close-fought final game, and the Elis fell to the Crimson, 5–4.
“We worked all season to get today,” head coach David Talbott said. “We were in a position to win, and we just couldn’t close it.”
Yale ran into difficulties early, going down 2–1 after the first three matches and watching captain Rhetta Nadas ’12 upset by Guruge, 3–1, at the No. 3 spot.
Nadas faltered after taking her first game against Guruge, losing the next two by scores of 11–2 and 11–3. Though she was visibly tired in the fifth game, taking extra time between points to catch her breath, Nadas fought off three match balls, rallied back from a 10–7 deficit, and took an 11–10 lead that brought her within a point of forcing a decisive fifth game.
But Guruge would win the next three points and the match, clinching the victory after Nadas missed a diving forehand near midcourt.
Yale made up for that loss with an upset of its own, as Hay defeated former individual national champion Laura Gemmell in five games. Hay dropped two consecutive games to Gemmell, who entered the match with a 38–1 career college record, after having won the first, and looked visibly upset after the second loss, throwing her racquet to the floor before exiting the court. By the time she returned for the fourth game, however, she had calmed down.
“The coaches talked with me and set my head straight,” Hay said. “They told me to play my game and not worry about anything else.”
Hay stormed to victory in the next two games, clinching the match and tying the overall score between Harvard and Yale at 2–2.
Yale had a setback at the No. 1 spot, where Millie Tomlinson ’14, last year’s individual college national champion lost to Harvard freshman phenomenon — and world No. 28 — Amanda Sobhy. But it received an important victory from Ballaine, who beat Harvard’s Natasha Kingshott in what Ballaine called the best game she has ever played.
That victory set up Mao’s and Van Arkel’s crucial matches and put players on both teams on pins and needles as they watched from the sidelines.
“It was a little bit of a heart attack there,” Harvard’s Sobhy said. “We all might have aged a bit.”
“It was a lot of pressure on [Mao and Van Arkel].” Talbott said.
The Crimson’s Mumanachit weathered that pressure, bouncing back after Mao forced a deciding fifth game and winning that fifth with a commanding 11–3 performance. Her victory tied the overall score, 4–4.
And although Van Arkel staged a late rally after losing the first two games of her match, she could not convert on a game ball at 10–9 and went on to lose, 12–10. With that, Harvard won 5–4.
“It was disappointing,” Ballaine said. “But we have another chance at national championships, and in the next two weeks we’re really going to gear up to win that.”
On Friday, Yale coasted past No. 8 Dartmouth, 9–0. All but two Elis won their matches 3–0. Tomlinson led the way with a sweep of Dartmouth No. 1 Corey Schaefer. Nadas ran into trouble early, dropping her first game, but bounced back to capture the next three in a row.
CSA National Team Championships will be held in two weeks at Harvard.
Charles Condro contributed reporting.