The Yale men’s squash team concluded its 2016–17 season with a frustrating eighth-place finish at Nationals.
The defending national champion Bulldogs (8–8, 5–2 Ivy) competed for the Potter Cup, the College Squash Association’s “A” division title, this past weekend. Yale entered the tournament, which was hosted at Harvard this year, seeded seventh out of eight teams. However, a trio of losses yielded the Elis an eighth-place finish.
“I think overall this season has been a tough one,” No. 8 Pierson Broadwater ’18 said. “For obvious reasons, most assessments of our performance this year will be in the context of last year’s, which is tough to live up to. I think that despite a somewhat slow start, the team really was able to grow and improve materially throughout the season. That’s really tough to do, especially with the kind of road schedule that we had.”
The seventh-seeded Bulldogs first faced off against Ivy champion No. 2 Harvard (13–2, 7–0). Five days prior, the Bulldogs nearly upset the Crimson in a 5–4 loss, but this time around the return of a top-five player propelled Harvard to an 8–1 rout. Yale then turned its attention to No. 6 Drexel (14–6), but fell to the Dragons 5–4 for the second time this season. In the final match of the tournament, Yale fell to No. 8 Penn (8–6, 4–3) 7–2, the same margin by which the Bulldogs topped the Quakers earlier in February.
The eighth-place finish at Nationals was the program’s worst since at least 2010, the oldest year for which records are available, and came just one season after winning the national championship. The Bulldogs entered the season ranked second in the nation and will likely drop to eight when the newest rankings are published.
After beating Yale, Harvard narrowly edged out No. 3 Columbia (12–3, 6–1) 5–4 in the second round. The tournament’s final saw the top two teams in the nation clash, with No. 1 Trinity (19–1) claiming a 5–4 tally over Harvard en route to the program’s 16th national title in the past 19 seasons. The Bantams won the Potter Cup each season from 1999–2011 and then again in 2013 and 2015, and finished second in 1997, 1998, 2012 and 2014. Despite this unbelievable history, Yale head coach Dave Talbott said he considers Trinity’s roster this season to be the strongest he has ever seen in his over two decades of coaching.
“Overall, the league has never taken a more dramatic jump, with the six teams we lost to in the regular season all significantly improving from last season,” Talbott said of the increased level of competition this season.
Last year Yale beat Columbia, St. Lawrence and Harvard with an aggregate record of 19–8; this year, by contrast, Yale lost to all three with a record of 6–21.
Talbott described the season overall as “disappointing”, which should not come as a surprise since the team’s six losses were the most it had incurred in at least the past eight seasons.
The results were in part due to an extremely demanding travel schedule this year. After returning to campus during winter break with a record of 2–0, the Bulldogs then played five of the top six ranked teams in the nation in just slightly over two weeks. During that span, which saw just one contest played on home courts, the team came away with four consecutive away losses and a record of 1–5 or 13–39 in individual games played. While the season ended on a relative high note, with wins in five of the team’s final six games, seven consecutive away matches in January proved too great a challenge to overcome.
The highlight of the tournament came during a tight match against Drexel.
“It was 4–4 and it all came down to [captain and No. 1] TJ [Dembinski ’17] playing on the glass court for the match,” Spencer Lovejoy ’20 said. “They were point-for-point and went into a tiebreaker. I just remember being on the edge of my seat the whole time. Watching our captain push so hard on the court was really inspirational to me and even though he lost, he still showed us all how to push yourself past your comfort zone.”
Dembinski’s opponent was the formidable Omar El Atmas, a Cairo native who finished his rookie campaign last season ranked seventh in the nation. Like the schools, the two competitors traded games back and forth. An 11–9 loss in the third game saw Dembinski facing sudden elimination, but the Bulldog barked back with a win by the same margin in the fourth. The stage was then set for a deciding fifth game of epic proportions which Talbott described as one of the best games has watched in college squash and one of the best in Dembinski’s four years on the team. El Atmas managed to save four match points and win the game 19–17, securing a victory for the Dragons. The match lasted an grueling 93 minutes.
Lovejoy, playing at No. 2, lost his match in five games as well, while classmate No. 9 Calvin McCafferty ’20 won his five-gamer. As evidence of how closely matched the teams were, just two of the nine contests were decided in the minimal three games.
The following day the team was upset by Penn, whom Talbott and players described as “hungry” to win after losing to Yale in every one of the schools’ contests since 2006–07. Wins came from Lovejoy at No. 2 and No. 5 Max Martin ’18 in three and four games, respectively.
For some Bulldogs, this weekend was the last time they will don the blue and white.
“As a coach, I could not have asked for more from our three seniors,” Talbott said. “TJ [Dembinski], Kah Wah [Cheong] ’17, and Liam [McClintock] ’17 were a core for four years and were key in bringing home an Ivy Title and National Championship in 2016. All three of them represented themselves off the court and in the classroom and community with the same positive results that happened on the courts. The three seniors have left their mark on Yale Squash in the most positive ways possible. They will be missed.”
McClintock said that a team’s success during a season cannot be measured with just scores and statistics, but must be judged in terms of camaraderie as well. He also said that his time representing Yale alongside Dembinski and Cheong was the four best years of his life, both on and off the court.
Members of the Yale team will likely compete at the CSA Individual Championships on March 3–5.