A big box of rings will arrive in New Haven for the men’s squash team sometime in the next few weeks. The dirty work is done, and the Elis are already the 2006 Ancient Eight champions, having clinched at least part of the title when Princeton downed Harvard in Boston 10 days ago.
But the Bulldogs are still fighting to make the engravings on those rings look even better.
Lose tonight, and the hardware will read “Ivy League Co-champions.” The No. 3 Bulldogs will pat themselves on the back and celebrate an Ancient Eight title. But, for that matter, so will the No. 4 Crimson and the No. 2 Tigers.
But put away the Cantabs tonight, and the 2006 Yale squad will end over a decade and a half of frustration, sparking the party of the season at Payne Whitney. And for the first time since 1990, those “Ivy League Champion” rings will not be postmarked for Cambridge or Princeton.
Harvard comes to town this evening in the last dual match of Yale’s epic 2005-06 run. Five Eli seniors — Julian Illingworth ’06, Avner Geva ’06, Trevor Rees ’06, Alex Tilton ’06 and Andrew Vinci ’06 — will see their last home action in blue and white tonight, and not one of them wants to see his curtain call come and go without an outright title.
“We’re pouring out our heart and soul in this last match,” Geva said. “Squash is why we’re here, and tomorrow is our last taste of Yale. And I’ll be pretty annoyed if I’m wearing the same ring as the Harvard or Princeton kids afterwards.”
Tomorrow’s match is hardly uncharted territory for the Bulldogs. Because of scheduling that puts Harvard and Princeton at or near the end of season, the “do-or-die” match has become familiar to the Class of 2006. But until this year, it has ended in heartbreak each time.
In the championship-deciding match of their freshman season of 2002-03, Illingworth had Princeton’s Yasser El Halaby down to the wire in hostile territory, a single point away from ending a then 13-year Yale drought. But the Egyptian battled back, and the Tigers clinched the Ivy title with the stinging 5-4 final on their home court.
Last February, Yale had another winner-take-all setup in Boston, but Harvard was dominant in pushing across an anticlimactic rout and taking the trophy all for itself.
But this time, the Elis are in the driver’s seat with some dibs already on the championship regardless of result. Whether they like it or not, some of the pressure is admittedly off tonight.
“We don’t have the pressure on us, even though it’s only been a couple days since we lost to Princeton [at the CSA Nationals Saturday],” Ho Ming Chiu ’08 said. “So we’re ready to go and ready to be sure we’re the only ones who win.”
The team had the chance to size up the Crimson last weekend while at the CSA tournament, a contest that determines a national champion but has no bearing on Ivy League standings. Several team members said they think they understand the pulse of their enemies from the north — malleable at the bottom, but fierce at the top.
“They’re quite strong at one, two and three, but we will get them and win most at the bottom,” associate head coach Gareth Webber said. “But more than just looking at Harvard, this past week has been about the mental preparation.”
Until today, the most memorable moment of the year by far was Vinci’s thrilling victory in the deciding game in Princeton on Feb. 4, which triggered a deluge of Elis jumping off the second-floor balcony and mobbing the senior on the court.
The team was flat against the Tigers in the rematch in the CSA semifinals last Saturday, losing 8-1, which Geva attributes to lack of mental preparation.
“We weren’t as psyched as we were for our first match,” he said. “But tomorrow night, it’s about getting back mentally to where we were before.”
There is little doubt that the Brady Squash Center will be electric tomorrow night, but it is still uncertain whether the Elis will repeat their daredevil leaps should they pull the victory.
“I was thinking we might do it, but at home, the balcony is too high,” Geva said. “But it’s my last game, so I guess it’s fine if I break a leg now.”