Guest writer Ryan Whirty is a freelance writer based in the Rochester area. He has been a professional journalist for 15 years, who is now freelancing full-time and specializing in sports, music and history. Whirty has been published in numerous publications, including the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Raleigh News & Observer, Baseball America and Inside Lacrosse.
The University of Rochester hosts Princeton University on December 13th.
Rochester, NY — Even though the University of Rochester squash team finished ranked third in the nation last season, and even though expectations — both from themselves and from others — are high for the 2009-10 campaign, the Yellowjackets still frequently describe themselves with one word: underdogs.
“I don’t really think that the pressure is on us,” says junior Hameed Ahmed. “I think we have a chance to win the title this year, but I don’t think anyone is actually expecting us to do so.”
With four players capable of filling the top spot in the lineup and a deep back half of the roster, the ’Jackets know they’re capable of attaining the ultimate prize — a national collegiate championship — even if doubters remain outside the team.
“If anything we are the underdogs,” says senior Jim Bristow, who played No. 1 for UR last year and finished sixth individually at nationals. “If there are any expectations, they are our personal or team expectations. I personally want to win the national title and believe that if things fall for us on the day, it certainly is possible.”
That’s because in just four short years, UR coach Martin Heath — a former world-ranked player himself — has taken a program that was always good but never capable of crashing the party at nationals and turned it into one that could challenge Princeton or even long-time champ Trinity. Heath coached the team from a 25th-place finish during his debut season of 2005-06 to an UR-best third last year. Rochester earned the Barnaby Award twice during that span.
The biggest key to Heath’s success as UR coach is crafty but certainly no secret; using the world-wide connections he made as an elite player from Scotland, Heath has taken a very global view when building the team.
By recruiting top junior players from just about everywhere on the planet — the squad now boasts players from 13 different countries on its roster — Heath infused the Rochester program with cultural, athletic and strategic diversity. The coach says each member of the team brings his own unique style of play that helps keep opponents off balance, while the Yellowjackets ethnic diversity has actually helped the squad pull together and form a tight bond.
“We’re all good friends and having a fun time on and off the court,” says Ahmed, a second-team All-American last season. “I can only speak for myself, but I’m personally having the time of my life right now.”
Heath’s first major recruit — he tries to sign one blue chipper per year — was Bristow, a native of Devon, England, while his most recent prized newcomer is Switzerland’s Benjamin Fischer, who arrived in January 2009 and immediately made an impact.
Heath says the team’s top four players — Bristow; Ahmed, a Finland native; Fischer; and Andres Duany from Peru — are capable of filling the top spot in the lineup at any given match. He believes up to six Yellowjackets have the potential to earn All-American honors this season.
But Heath believes the rest of the roster is deep with talent as well, including junior Matthew Domenick, junior Joe Chapman, senior Yohay Wakabayashi and newcomer Juan Pablo Gaviria. Heath said he’s especially focused on cultivating the talents of such crucial players.
“Up to this point, it was a case of building the roster,” says Heath. “This year, we have 10 strong players and it is a coaching challenge – to have them get better from September through March.”
The other major factor in UR’s rise has been learning from experience. In 2008-09, the Yellowjackets lost to Cornell, Yale and Harvard, all by 5-4 scores, during the regular season. However, UR then gained revenge by beating all three teams in the postseason after earning the sixth seed at nationals.
This season the Yellowjackets will enjoy home-court advantage when they face many of the country’s top teams; UR plays Princeton, Yale, Cornell and Harvard in Rochester, and Bristow says the team wants to apply last year’s strategy to the upcoming campaign.
“I think that success this year will come from learning about our opponents in seasonal matches and then focusing on what we have learned during the national championships,” says Bristow a 2009 first-team All-American who will co-captain this season’s team with Ahmed. “We have to use the season to gain confidence and believe that we can beat every team in the country during the national championships.”
Of course, to win a national title, the ’Jackets will have to beat Trinity, which will be a tall order. However, Heath believes that “on a head-to-head basis, on any given day there’s no reason we can’t beat anyone in the country.”
“We’re doing everything right,” Heath adds. “All you can do is improve your chances. We’re putting all the right pieces in place, and hopefully, when it comes to crunch time we can do it.”