John Illig is the Middlebury squash coach and a 1986 graduate of the University of Rochester. He is the author of the Triple Crown Trilogy. Photos and video by Mithun Mukherjee, who is a regular contributor to SquashRochester.org. Additional photos by Paul Schwartz.
Rochester, NY — Sunday morning, December 13th. I’m driving through the southern Adirondack Mountains (they’re snow-covered and beautiful), and I’m cursing myself for having gotten a late start from Vermont to get “home” to watch the Princeton – Rochester 1 PM squash match in my hometown of Rochester, NY. As a University of Rochester alumnus, class of ’86, I’m like a shark that’s smelled blood in the water, knowing that Martin Heath’s strong 09-10 Yellowjackets have the honor of hosting Princeton on this day, as well as the rare opportunity of climbing from #3 to #2 in the men’s CSA rankings.
But I’m late to the feeding frenzy… How could I have overslept? By the time that I finally drop down out of the Adirondacks off route 8 and hit the NY State Thruway in Rome, I’m 90 minutes away from U. of R.’s squash courts, and the 1 PM match has just begun. It’s okay, though, don’t panic: I’ve got a guy on the inside, and he’s sending me periodic text-messages, which I’m reading while flying down the icy road, windshield wipers on full, due to the typical Upstate NY detritus – – mixture of rain-ice-snow which always seem to fall off the Great Lakes and makes one curse the name Rochester. The single text which makes my day is that they’re playing the 3-court system instead of the 5-court system. It means that I’ll likely be able to catch AT LEAST half of the sure-to-be epic, and possibly historic, match. Good news. I slow down a bit. Save some lives.
The texts come in from Rochesterian Mark Sorrentino, who plays on my Middlebury College squash team. He says that numbers 3, 6 and 9 have taken to the court — that Rochester is ahead at #’s 3 and 9, but that Rochester’s #6 has ran into the wall and had to retire. WHAT?! What was I missing? I was missing a match where the players were trying so hard that they were running into the walls? I speed up a little. My foot gets heavy. I lean forward to look through the sludge, and thank my lucky stars that I’d put on my snow tires just the day before. I text back, desperate for details. The details come in: Rochester’s lone, starting senior, #3 Jim Bristow (a three-time All-American from Devon, England), goes up 2-0 in games on the center court against Princeton’s Santiago Imberton, from El Salvador. Bristow drops the 3rd but wins 11-7 in the 4th. Meanwhile Rochester’s #9 , Joe Chapman, from the British Virgin Islands, wins 3-0, routinely, against James Thorman, a Brunswick School graduate. And yes, Rochester #6 Juan Pablo Gaviria, from Columbia, ran into the wall and concussed himself. He’s okay. Rochester 2, Princeton 1.
The Crowd is Large
For 90 minutes, I speed down the Thruway, checking my text messages all the way with Sorrentino feeding me the play-by-play. I’m new to this Life-with-the-Blackberry (my thoughts: should I not be doing this?). I finally work my way off the Thruway, up 490, and up Elmwood Avenue past Strong Memorial Hospital, past the incredible Mt. Hope Cemetery, and past the Elmwood Inn, where back in my pre-vegetarian days I’d gone for “pitchers & wings” with my friends about four nights a week, senior year. I hit Rochester’s campus (parking is ALWAYS a problem). I run past the library in the freezing rain and work my way through to the back of the gym to the beautiful Peter Lyman squash facility.
I arrive as the scene looks like this, still: Rochester 2, Princeton 1. First team to 5 wins the match, of course. I squeeze into the back of the bleachers beside Sorrentino and I stand watching the match for the next three hours. We’re behind the center court where Rochester #2 Hameed Ahmed, from Helsinki, Finland, is up 2-0 on Princeton’s David Letourneau, from Calgary. This looks like it’ll be another match win for Rochester. Things are looking good…
I look down and see my old U.R. college tennis coach, Peter Lyman, who coached squash & tennis at U. Rochester for almost 40 years. UR’s squash and tennis courts are named after him and someone tells me that Bob Callahan said a few nice words on Peter’s behalf during introductions at the start of the match. Bob Callahan, always on the ball. Peter is old now, and for many, many decades he’s suffered greatly from rheumatoid arthritis, so he looks even older than he is. I’m in my 19th season as a college squash coach, and I can see myself easily coaching for 20 more years. I look down at Peter. He’s “into” the match. I see Peter as an old man and I’m staring my future right in the face.
A row down, I see the U. Rochester Athletic Director, Craig Vanderswaag. He’s a guy who played football at Trinity College in Hartford, class of ’86 — and he’d lived in the four-person quad below mine in Jackson Hall back in ’82-’83 during the one year that I attended Trinity before transferring to U. Rochester. We’d been friends back then. He’d later served eight years as the assistant athletic director at Princeton before taking the head post at UR — so here’s a guy (the only guy?) who’s got squash’s Big-Three covered: Trinity (grad), Princeton (former assistant AD), and U. Rochester (AD). I reach over and tap his shoulder. I say: “You LOVE squash. You can’t get away from it, no matter what you do!”
The crowd is large, the cheering is loud but everything is respectful. At court-level is coach Martin Heath, impeccably dressed in jacket and tie. Nearby him is coach Bob Callahan, impeccably dressed in jacket and tie. Both look calm. Those are two cool customers. I settle in. Breathe deeply. Relax. I’m late to the feeding frenzy, but I’ve made it!
2:30 PM: Hameed drops his third game to Letourneau 11-3, just going through the motions at the end of that one-sided game. Still, he’s up 2-1 in games, so no reason to panic. In the fourth game, Hameed comes out swinging and hits some mind-blowing fakes and a couple truly outrageous flat-line nicks to go up 7-2 in points versus Letourneau. This is an IMPORTANT match. Rochester takes this one and they all-but clinch it. It’s a crowd-pleasing match. Hameed, in his iMask, is the instigator. He’s shooting, and the crowd is at the edge of their seats. Yet something happens. The worm turns. Hameed cannot sustain his level. He pushes too hard for the finish line. It’s like he’s trying to reach an EVEN HIGHER level, but that’s one which frankly exists only on the PSA tour. Hameed starts finding the tin, and the momentum shifts to Letourneau. Letourneau hangs in there and rattles off six straight points while the crowd is stunned. What’s wrong with Hameed: is it nerves, is it hubris, going for those shots? Letourneau wins the fourth game to even his match at 2-2. In their 5th game, Letourneau plays error-free squash while Hameed finds the tin on forced drops and drop-volleys. Letourneau takes his match 11-13, 9-11, 11-3, 11-8, and 11-8.
That hurt, but it’s not a deal-breaker for Rochester. Rochester 2, Princeton 2. My flipvideo camera has been recording the action. I’m taping warm-up routines, footwork during points, shot-selection. There will be a movie night with my teams back at Middlebury College in early January, to review this footage. I keep the camera rolling as Hameed shakes Letourneau’s hand and walks out of the court and down past the crowd. He’s clearly disappointed, but he holds his head high. It’s amazing. I continue to roll. Martin Heath is perfect — pats him on the back and doesn’t make a big deal out of it (a “You’ll get him next time” kind of pat-on-the-back). Hameed sets his stuff down on an unused court that all the players are using as a go-to spot for coaching during the game breaks. And VERY SOON Hameed returns to the mix to root for his teammates. Perfect. I video-tape his return. Will show that, too, to my players: “This is how it’s done.” I’m suddenly endeared to the guy. He had his match, but he lost. And he handled the loss with grace and dignity. In every crisis there is an opportunity! You can’t ask for anything more.
It occurs to me in the height of this drama that sportsmanship on both sides is impeccable. Entirely absent is the prep-school and college thing that players do upon losing a game in mid-match, where their 90-second break starts and whoever has just lost the game doesn’t walk off the court carrying his racquet, or even set his racquet against the wall of the court, but instead he/she ALL TOO OFTEN aggressively “drops” his or her racquet to the floor, and often even throws down the goggles, too. You know it when you see it, and it’s not pretty. There’s NONE of that during this match. Nothing but class. To me, I’ve never witnessed anything else in 19 years watching (and competing against) Princeton. Bob Callahan for President of the United States of America. He’ll have my vote in 2016.
With the match tied at 2-2, over to the right Rochester #8 Oscar Lopez Hidalgo from Mexico wins in straights over Princeton’s Steve Harrington, yet another former Brunswick player. While over to the left, Princeton #5 Peter Sopher defeats Rochester’s Matt Domenick 11-6, 11-8, 11-5, in the only match of the day pitting American versus American. With the overall score now tied at 3-3, positions numbered 1, 4, and 7 take to the courts. Whichever team wins two-out-of-three of those final matches will win the day. It’s coming down to the wire. Instead of roving, I stay riveted in my spot, captivated by the excellent play on center court. Despite the drama, I’m not planning to miss a moment of Todd Harrity’s match. Harrity is playing #1 for Princeton against Rochester sophomore Bennie Fisher. I can’t see much of the action on either of the side courts, to the left and the right, but the crowd keeps roaring and I can see the scoreboards and I check them constantly.
Rochester goes up on BOTH side courts. Wow. National flags hang above the courts all along the wall, following the trend set by Yale. Rochester currently has a whopping 10 international players on its team — from Finland, Peru, Switzerland, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, Japan, the Virgin Islands, and two from England. Princeton has 7 international players (after having graduated three superstars last year in Mauricio Sanchez from Mexico, Kimlee Wong from Malaysia, and Heshem el Halaby from Egypt) — from Mexico, India, El Salvador, England, and three Canadians.
Rochester’s Will Newnham, from England, wins at #7 versus Princeton’s Nikhil Seth, from India, 11-9, 11-1, 11-6. And the deciding match was Rochester #4 Andres Duany from Peru, defeating Princeton’s Jesus Pena, from Mexico, in a hard-fought clincher: 14-12, 11-7, 8-11, 11-5. History’s been made, in that U. Rochester has NEVER been as high as #2 in the rankings before (all Rochesterian squash-ers are thrilled). By the time that Duany won to claim 5 matches for Rochester and the victory, the crowd had dissipated slightly. After all, it was a long, 4-plus-hour match, and not everyone there was a squash fan. The cheering for the victory was loud, but brief. Princeton players had fought hard and were disappointed, but again they were all-class. And Rochester, in victory, was all-class: VERY respectful. All these players know each other. They’re friends. And that’s how you play the game, even when the nation’s 2-3 spot is at stake. The Rochester players know: you never wake a sleeping giant. And Princeton is a giant. They weren’t sleeping on Dec. 13th, 2009, but Princeton had a couple injuries and illnesses. Missing in Princeton’s line-up were superstars Chris Callis and Kelly Shannon. And you KNOW that Princeton will be coming for Rochester the next time. Princeton will want that match pretty badly, you can imagine. Fireworks will ensue.
Meanwhile, Todd Harrity was still playing. He’d played a-game-and-a-half into his match by the time that the victory had been sealed. Harrity’s match, playing in the #1 spot versus Rochester’s Bennie Fisher, from Switzerland, now became immaterial. Harrity was flawless before, during and after the noise and drama on the adjacent courts. Can anything shake that guy? Don’t even get me started. If I begin to talk about Harrity’s game, then this article will be twice as long. His overhead is the best shot in intercollegiate squash. He won 3-0, routinely. So disciplined. So exacting. SIMPLY AMAZING. There’s plenty to celebrate: enough to go around.
Video by Mithun Mukherjee: