By Michael Bishop
Published Nov 3, 2009 at 7:00 AM ET; Updated Nov 2, 2009 at 9:52 PM ET

University of Washington coach Michael Bishop reports on his team’s cross country trip to the Navy Round Robin and their improvement over last season.

washingtonAnnapolis, MD — The University of Washington (UW) squash team’s pre-season goal was a return to being a mid-30’s ranked team. A cross-country weekend trip to the Navy Halloween weekend round robin was a big step in that direction for us. We defeated number 32 Virginia and number 33 Drexel by identical 5-4 scores, and added wins over the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Bard before losing to number 29 Georgetown on the sixth and final match of the weekend. A scrimmage with the Navy B team made it an exhausting but exhilarating two days.

Squash teams often consider themselves fortunate to have the excitement of one 5-4 win in a season. Two in two days was about all I, as coach, could handle. A game University of Virginia (UVA)  team kept all matches close except number 1 (3-0 for UVA’s Patterson over UW’s Young) and number 2 (3-0 for UW’s Morcos over UVA’s Tse). A key victory for us came at number 4, where sophomore co-captain Parisa Khalighi (our team is co-ed) wore down Kaseem Sututikorova with the steady rails and pinpoint drops she learned from days as a junior with coach Azam Khan. The clinching win came 3-2 (12-10 in the fifth) from freshman Eugene Chau over Paul Light, and exhilaration reigned as we realized we were on track again after a tough 08-09 season.

After the Friday night victory over UVA, we expected a much easier time with UNC, to whom we had lost last year, 5-4. We knew our team is much improved over last year’s, and figured UNC would be coasting in the Saturday morning tilt. But UNC had also found new blood including senior Rees Sweeney-Taylor (who had not played last year) and gave us all we could handle, keeping it close until the end. We won 6-3, with four of the nine matches going to four games. Khalighi again provided a key win and gutsy performance against fleet Mike Morrill, UNC captain, with scores of 6-11, 14-12, 12-10, and 12-10.

Our tired but energized team faced Drexel immediately following UNC, again winning by the narrowest possible margin. We easily won the first three matches (at numbers 3, 6, and 9) but Drexel came back with the next three wins, and it all came down to the final three matches with number 1 going to UW’s Young over Chatterjee. Khalighi again played superbly but in the end, it was Drexel captain Justin Burkholder with a 3-2 win over her. It all came down to a match at number 8 between UW sophomore Kevin Park and Drexel’s Gagliano. Park wore him down and won 11-1 in the fourth. Asked afterwards whether he realized that his was the clinching match, Park commented, “I wondered why so many people suddenly came to see me.” Park was the weekend hero, going 5-0 for the five CSA matches, losing only in the scrimmage with Navy B.

Our third Saturday match was against Bard, a team that had provided our only regular season victory in 08-09. Bard was much stronger this year, taking several games and narrowly losing at number 5 as their Vladamir Pick took our Ryan Tyler to five games before finally losing 11-0 in the fifth, a victim of Tyler’s incredible fitness and energy.

On Sunday, our weary team faced Navy B followed by Georgetown. Again, there were close matches (four of them went to five games with the fifth one always close). In a match that felt quite competitive, the Hoyas ended up going 8-1 to get the “W.” The number 1 match included spectacular gets and great shots with Michael Krayem beating Husky Rob Young in five. The lone Husky win came from Kevin Park in yet another five gamer.

How does a team go from number 44 to a weekend like this? Numerous factors have contributed to our team’s resurgence. A big boost was expected from the return of number 1 Rob Young, who had taken the year off college squash but had worked independently on his game and came back stronger then ever. But unexpected surprises came repeatedly starting at the end of last season as Ben Bryan, a talented badminton and tennis player showed up and asked if he could learn squash (the answer was yes, and Bryan is number 6 on the team). Then Kevin Park, a then freshman, came and said he had learned the game playing for St. Andrew’s, a secondary school in Toronto, and could he play on the team? Yet another bit of good fortune came in October when Eugene Chau, an incoming freshman, showed up at practice and explained that he had played at Andover Academy. Chau has been a solid number 7 and shows great promise for the future.

A second big factor has been the addition of weekly coaching sessions with Azam Khan. Khan, a former US National team member, has coached some of the top US juniors, including US Junior Open champion and Penn player Kristen Lange as well as current US women’s junior team member Yarden Odinak. UW players Morcos and Khalighi grew up with Azam’s tutelage and helped arrange to bring him on board in what is clearly a step up for the team.

The third big factor has been the student leadership of the team. In an unusual step, the team has three co-captains this year. Seniors Brett McGinnis and Najib Morcos seemed the obvious choices for captain, but Khalighi’s leadership, enthusiasm and skills made it clear that the team had a “troika” at the top. The arrangement has been a great success with a palpable difference in enthusiasm and work ethic on the team.