Even favorable matchups and home court advantage were not enough to propel the men’s squash team past Princeton, who came in surging after a 9-0 blanking of the Penn Quakers just three days earlier. A strong contingent of students, alumni and parents saw the Elis succumb to the immensely talented Tiger squad on Saturday in the season’s fourth Ivy League match.
The Bulldogs (10-3, 2-2 Ivy) managed to pick up only three courts against Princeton (6-0, 4-0) and still had a chance to win almost right up to the very end. Yale lost the first set of matches, falling quickly behind, 3-0. Hope then came in the form of an upset by No. 2 Max Samuel ’08 and a clutch win by No. 5 Francis Johnson ’09. The Elis needed to sweep the third set of matches to win, but only No. 7 Todd Ruth could pull off the feat after a five-game seesaw affair that drew a final burst of energy from the crowd.
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“Overall I thought we played well with the 6-3 score,” head coach Dave Talbott said. “There were some spots where we could have won, but the effort and the intensity were excellent.”
The energy and enthusiasm were no more prevalent than on the main court when Samuel took out Hesham El Halaby in five games. El Halaby’s brother, Yassar, graduated from Princeton last year as arguably the most decorated collegiate squash player ever — a fact the crowd used to taunt the native Egyptian. Few expected Yale’s top three, including Samuel, to contend with the first three spots in the Tigers’ lineup. But after a 10-8 comeback win in the first game, in which Samuel celebrated by slamming the game ball over the court wall and down the upper mezzanine of the squash center, it seemed he had a chance.
Things heated up both on the court and off it. The two players were unhappy with many of the calls being made. At one point, Samuel yelled at the Princeton referee, “Why are you lying? You’re lying right now!”
After the second game, which El Halaby took, 9-1, he shoved Samuel by the water cooler and coaches and players had to step in. The match ultimately came down to a deciding fifth game where Samuel exhibited perfect ball placement and got the victory with just about everyone in attendance looking on.
“I felt fit, and I was able to pick up the pace of play when he was getting tired,” Samuel said, “This is a burst of confidence for me.”
Wins by Ruth and Johnson coupled with strong play on nearly every court will also bring confidence to the squad as a whole. Talbott said after seeing the way his team played today, he likes his chances at the team championships in a few weeks.
The CSA Team Championships will take place in the Brady Squash Center where again the Elis will have home court advantage. During Saturday’s match, Samuel credited the fans and said he really used them to rally when he was down. Johnson sung similar praises for the crowd and said the great support helped to fire him up during his win.
Yale knew coming into the match that the Tigers were the strongest at the top of their ladder, where they returned three sophomore All-Americans, and the wins would have to come at the bottom. Consequently, losses at No. 6, No. 8, and No. 9 severely impaired the Bulldogs’ chances of beating the third-ranked team in the nation.
“They’re a calm and collected team,” Johnson said. “We try to rattle them, especially at home, but they’re always poised.”
Princeton, who lost 5-4 to the Bulldogs last season, and ultimately shared an Ivy League title with Yale and Harvard, will now focus on the Crimson, who are also undefeated in conference play.
“[Princeton] very well could be the class of the league,” Talbott said. “We’ll see what happens when they go to Harvard.”
The Bulldogs now have a week to think about the loss before they face Brown at home next weekend. Talbott also said the only thing his group can do now is focus on the team championships and spoiling Harvard’s season — a deed which alone might be enough to make the season a success.