The Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance will hold the 64th Annual Gold Key Dinner on April 17 when the Trinity men’s squash team and the Yale women’s squash team will be honored. For the former, the dinner represents another acknowledgement of their seven-year-old reign. For the latter, the honor recognizes what the Elis have been able to do in the past two seasons while at the same time raising the question that is on the mind of many in the world of collegiate squash — can the Bulldog women establish a dynasty the likes of the Bantam men’s?
After going 28-0 in the past two seasons and racking up two Ivy League titles, two national championships, and two Howe Cup trophies, the Elis have begun to wrap up the celebrations and started looking forward. Next year, the Bulldogs will return seven of their top nine, with five-seed and captain Frances Ho ’05 and six-seed Lauren Doline ’05 graduating. But even without these two strong team players, there is no reason that the Bulldogs cannot dominate the way they have the past two years if back-to-back individual national champion Michelle Quibell ’06 stays at the helm.
At the same time, Princeton, Trinity and Harvard will be looking to exact revenge on the Elis. Since the Bantams, Crimson and Tigers have had significant stints as queens of the hill, they have the experience needed to threaten the Bulldogs. If the Elis can overcome these three teams again, though, they may be able to claim the title of dynasty. But if the Bulldogs hope to one day wear shirts like those of the Trinity men, which read, “Back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back champs,” it is going to take a lot of work.
The festivities that started when the Elis beat the Crimson 7-2 to win their second Howe Cup in two years have continued through the beginning of spring break with Quibell, the Ivy League Player of the Year, beating Harvard’s Kyla Grigg 3-1 to claim her second individual championship. Trinity women’s squash head coach Wendy Bartlett, who has compiled a 202-66 record in 21 years with the Bantams, said the play by the Eli women in the past two years has raised the level of play for collegiate squash in a similar manner to what the Bantams did when the won back-to-back Howe Cups in 2002 and 2003.
“When Trinity [won the Howe Cup] two years ago, it was mainly a team of international players, and we raised the bar,” Bartlett said. “Other schools started becoming competitive and Mark [Talbott] did a wonderful job building the Yale program with international and American players. Now Yale has raised the bar again and it’s great to see how much it has increased so dramatically.”
Talbott, the former head coach of Yale women’s squash who is now head coach at Stanford, recruited the players who have been instrumental in the Elis’ success, including two-seed Amy Gross ’06, three-seed Catherine McLeod ’07, and four-seed Miranda Ranieri ’08. This year, these three individuals, along with Quibell, were named All-Ivy selections. While Talbott coached the Bulldogs to their first Howe Cup in 2003-04, his brother Dave, also the men’s head coach, stepped in and coached the Eli women to the repeat this year after Mark left for Palo Alto. Bartlett said Dave Talbott has done a great job as head coach but will be challenged to continue recruiting great players if he wants the team to win the triple crown for a third year in a row.
Bartlett said one of the special things about Eli squash, which may help them to win it all again next year, is the team chemistry.
“First of all, [the Elis] are really truly wonderful sportswomen on the court and a very well-liked team,” Bartlett said. “Off the court, they are very supportive, very open, very friendly and helpful. A lot of people really respect that team. They are not only national champions but also a well-bonded team with great team spirit.”
Bartlett added that Quibell’s success has not taken away from her sportsmanship.
“You can get a lot of prima donnas, but Yale doesn’t have any, including Michelle,” Bartlett said. “She is truly amazing. All my players love to play her.”
Bartlett said she thinks Yale will be dominant next year, but that it takes more than three years of winning to become a dynasty.
“I think of a dynasty as being national champs or having a national-championship caliber program for as many years as possible, which is so hard in this day and age,” Bartlett said. “The men’s team here definitely has a dynasty, going undefeated for seven years in a row. If Yale can do something no other women’s team has done, that would be a dynasty and they might do that. Princeton had a dynasty in the very beginning in women’s squash, but it gets tougher and tougher to do that as it gets more competitive.”
The dynasty Bartlett referred to spanned from 1973 to 1984 when the Tigers won the Howe Cup 10 out of 12 years, including two different streaks of four consecutive Cup wins. But Talbott said he thinks the Elis will establish a dynasty if they get their third consecutive Cup in 2006. To do that, Talbott said players who were lower on the this season’s ladder, such as Nicola Shiels ’07 and Sarah Barenbaum ’08, will have to step up to play consistently and players like Kate Rapisarda ’07 and Lauren McCrery ’07, who won easily throughout the season, will have to elevate the level of their games.
“We are losing five and six, [Ho] and [Doline], but McCrery and Rapisarda are as strong as those kids are,” Talbott said. “They have been comfortable down below, so the key is to motivate them. They realize they’ve got to step up to play next level, and both are clearly capable. [Shiels] would be top-nine any other team besides Yale, including Trinity and Harvard. We’ve got weapons, but the kids have to continue improving. It’s not just about trying to win another national championship, but to really maximize and a to can get even better than they are now.”
Talbott added that in comparison to the women’s dynasties of the past, this Yale team stands alone.
“I think it’s the best assembled women’s team of all those,” Talbott said. “With Kate and Lauren playing on the junior world team playing eight and nine here, no one’s ever had that.”
Talbott also said he recognizes the challenge of recruiting players to continue to bear the torch. He said next year’s class is somewhat weak in general across the country but the class of 2010 could be very strong. Certainly, having won two triple crowns in a row has been a boon.
“Success breeds success, and kids want to go where there is success,” Talbott said. “Everyone recognizes Yale as strong talent-wise and a strong character team. They are leaders and gritty kids, and they speak for Yale in general.”
After Quibell, Gross, and potential five-seed Rachita Vora ’06 graduate next year, Talbott said the other women will have their work cut out for them in playing at the higher level, but he thinks they will stay competitive even if the program takes a slight step back. Bartlett said she thinks McLeod has the potential to fill the huge shoes Quibell will leave behind.
“Catherine McLeod is terrific and [Ranieri] possibly with time and some growing,” Bartlett said. “Catherine is really incredible. I know from the other players’ standpoint, Catherine is a very tough player to beat. She has gotten a lot more offensive on the court and has always superior court coverage.”
Right now, though, the focus is not on extending the streak to four in 2007 but simply winning next year. Shiels said they know they have to be focused, especially since Harvard is only losing their two- and eight-seeds.
“Our top four will be really strong, so judging from that if we grab one or two wins in the bottom half we will be able to beat [the Crimson] again, but it’s going to be hard to organize that,” Shiels said. “We’ve already started to get e-mails to have offseason training and we have realized we are going to have to step up. But if we win next year, that’s a triple-triple — a hat trick — and that will be unbelievable.”
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