Greg Cameron

After a third-place finish at the Ivy Scrimmages two weekends ago, the defending Ivy League and national champion No. 2 Yale men’s squash team will open its 2016–2017 regular season this Saturday with home a match against No. 13 Franklin & Marshall.

The Bulldogs made quick work of No. 16 Brown with a 9–0 sweep in the first round of the scrimmage bracket before an upset at the hands of No. 7 Columbia sent the Elis to an appearance in the consolation final, where they topped No. 6 Penn for third place. Heading into the weekend, Yale is heavily favored to win its season openers against the No. 14 Diplomats (1–2, 0–0 Centennial).

“[We’re] really looking forward to getting back to competition,” Pierson Broadwater ’18 said. “The fall preseason is always a long stretch where we’re training really hard but don’t have many chances to compete hard. Franklin & Marshall is always a good match for us, and we’re looking forward to putting our best foot forward for the season.”

Historically, the Diplomats have posed little challenge for the Bulldogs; Yale has won the teams’ past two meetings, both season openers, by convincing 7–2 and 8–1 margins. The wins marked the Elis’ 25th and 26th consecutive wins over Franklin & Marshall.

Saturday’s bout with the Diplomats marks Yale’s first formal competition since the squad ended a 26-year drought by claiming the 16th national championship in program history — and the third in head coach Dave Talbott’s 34-year tenure — in front of a packed home crowd at Brady Squash Center. Before their title run, the Elis swept their Ivy League competition in the regular season en route to an outright conference championship.

The fact that seven of the Bulldogs’ top nine from their championship campaign will return this year alongside an impactful crop of talented freshmen bodes well for the team. Last year, Yale graduated just two starters in Zac Leman ’16 and captain Sam Fenwick ’16, who played No. 1 and No. 3 in the ladder, respectively. The Bulldogs welcome newcomers Spencer Lovejoy ’20, Calvin McCafferty ’20 and Parth Bhatia ’20 this season.

Lovejoy, who finished his junior squash career ranked second in the nation, wowed spectators at the Ivy League scrimmages when he started at No. 1 for the Bulldogs. Lovejoy’s only loss of the weekend came in a close match against Columbia’s Osama Khalifa, who ranks No. 1 in the country.

“I have been dreaming of being on the big stage my whole life,” Lovejoy said. “Now that this team is defending the national championship it puts a little more pressure on, which I personally thrive for. It can be very intimidating going up against some of the other number ones who are legends of college squash, however I look forward to playing them and believe if I keep working hard I can be among them or even beat them.”

Lovejoy will help bolster the top end of a Yale team whose success was built on its depth last season. The 2015–16 Bulldogs’ top three had a win percentage of only 51.0 percent, while the middle and bottom thirds of the roster boasted impressive 88.2 percent and 82.4 percent marks, respectively. Talbott described his players as a “hard-working, blue-collar team that will have to grind it out with depth and outworking their opponents.” With six of the roster’s 15 members being juniors — who are poised to reach their primes as veterans this season — the expectations for this year’s team are appropriately high.

Yale will look up to seniors Liam McClintock ’17, Kah Wah Cheong ’17 and especially captain TJ Dembinski ’17 for leadership this year. All three have been top-nine players since their freshman seasons and are projected to play in the team’s top five this year. Dembinski, who finished last season ranked No. 15 in the nation, also captained his high school team during his junior and senior years, and the latter squad included Lovejoy.

While the captain expressed disappointment in the team’s Ivy League Scrimmages finish, Dembinski emphasized the importance of the later part of the season — which culminates in the quest for the conference and national titles.

“I felt that the team performed well at the scrimmages,” Dembinski said. “They’re always a great way to open the season and give everyone a sense of who our competitors are and where we are in our training. It would have been nice to win them, but the matches that count are the ones in January in February.”

Yale opens its regular season against Franklin & Marshall on Saturday at 12 p.m. at the Brady Squash Center and kicks off conference competition next Tuesday against visiting Brown.