Hartford. You may have grabbed a brief gritty vista from a Connecticut Limo en route to Bradley Airport. The population is slipping, the insurance firms are outsourcing and the beloved Whalers have now long since fled to Raleigh.
But in the past 10 years, the hilly city a few exits up I-91 has found a new claim to fame — an international mecca for squash. Many of the best players on the planet are flocking to Trinity College, a few blocks south of the state capitol, where a women’s program recently rallied off consecutive national titles and the men have won every single game for a whopping and unprecedented eight straight seasons.
“The Streak” dates all the way back to 1998, and tonight, the Bulldog men will have the chance to go into the record books as spoiler for the longest consecutive winning streak in NCAA history. The Bantams, with a sole American in their starting nine, look to push their legend to new heights with victory No. 132.
“I never would have expected this in a million years, and because it is so unheard of, I’ve never had a sense of ownership over the run,” Trinity men’s head coach Paul Assaiante said. “But recently I was sitting back and thinking that my daughter is about to graduate from college, and the last time we lost, she was a freshman in high school.”
Though it has had a varsity squash program since 1974, the liberal arts school, with an undergraduate population of 2,188, only began to establish itself as a national force over the past 10 years or so. But since the men claimed their first national title in 1999 and the women followed suit three years later, the Bantams have more than merely ruffled the feathers of a Harvard-Princeton-Yale hegemony that had prevailed since the Roaring Twenties.
“When I first came to Trinity in 1985, the women’s squash world was basically all Princeton and Harvard,” Trinity women’s head coach Wendy Bartlett said. “Squash has always been important here, but we did not have a dramatic change until the mid-’90s.”
And the change was swift and spectacular. Both teams qualified for their respective national championships for the first time in 1996, and the men stunned the squash world three years later when they ended Harvard’s 17-year home winning streak. Since then, the men have claimed every national title in their path since their epic run began, and the women brought home a pair of titles of their own in 2002 and 2003.
But how did a small New England school with a limited reputation outside the northeast become the new hot spot in the squash universe so quickly? The answer lay in the “change” that Bartlett spoke of, a 1996 decision by then-college-president Evan Dobelle that turned out to be a stroke of strategic and diplomatic genius.
“It wasn’t my doing; it was a large-scale institutional decision to get behind the sport by looking international,” Assaiante said. “We knew that, unlike football, we didn’t need that many bodies, and it would market the international reputation of Trinity. The alumni jumped on board, and now it seems to make so much sense to have such a diverse program in our urban setting.”
By looking to Europe, Africa, and South Asia — beyond the American prep schools that had traditionally fed Ancient Eight programs — little Trinity was starting to corner a market of prospective players looking for a friendly place for foreign students that could also provide an enticing financial aid package. But the most significant coup, according to Bartlett, was landing a premier squash stud from across the Atlantic.
“Paul [Assaiante] got an application to an English player named Marcus Cowles, who was then ranked second in the world,” she said. “As soon as he came to campus, we asked him if he knew any girls in Europe who may be interested in Trinity, and the rest is history. The world may be large, but the squash world is small, and we built up our name pretty quickly through word of mouth.”
Cowles won 64 games before graduating in 2000, a foundation of the early part of the dynasty, but the United Kingdom would be one of more than a dozen nations that have dominated the roster in years since. Colgate Smith, one of three co-captains along with Swiss and South African nationals, will be the lone U.S.-born player taking the court tonight — as opposed to the Bulldogs, who have six Americans in the starting nine.
Bulldogs head coach David Talbott witnessed the metamorphosis of the Trinity program and said he sees it as a positive for the sport.
“Just like Hobart and lacrosse, Trinity’s found their niche sport, and they can play with anyone in the country,” he said. “Everyone who knows Trinity knows about their squash team. It’s their thing. They create a great opportunity for good international players who may not get into Ivy programs to get a great education and see squash at a spectacular level. It has opened up the game even more.”
Though it may seem tough to lure the squash elite away from the revered Big Three programs and educations to Hartford, Assaiante and Bartlett have built up quite a diverse stock through intensive recruiting.
“We know we don’t have the cache of a Harvard or Yale,” Assaiante said. “But to a young person in Harare, Zimbabwe, who may have never heard of any American schools, we let them know they will get plenty of personal attention. If a parent is sending their son to a campus halfway around the world that they will probably never see themselves, at least they’ll know that somebody will be there to always care about them. We love these kids.”
On top of that, being a Division III school fighting against Division I universities has been a feather in the cap for many of the students in general.
“The level of competition is super, and it’s something Trinity as a whole can be proud of,” Bartlett said. “With the men national champs for years now and the women national champs twice, it’s added a lot to the whole team spirit of the college.”
Squash is flourishing in Hartford, and, streak or no streak, squash standouts from Dublin to Durban to Delhi seem to be lining up to, most of all, have a fun four years under Assaiante and Bartlett.
“It’s been a really, really fun run, but when it finally ends, well, just get back up and start another one,” Assaiante said. “I just hope that in 20 years, sitting back in a rowboat somewhere in the Carolinas, we can look back and say how amazing it was. But now is now.”