By Geoff McCuen
Published Nov 3, 2011 at 7:00 AM ET; Updated Nov 2, 2011 at 8:52 PM ET

Notre Dame coach Geoff McCuen reports the 2011 Jesters Mid America Collegiate Cup.

Refs and Markers at the 2011 Jester’s Mid America Collegiate Cup

Refs and Markers at the 2011 Jester’s Mid America Collegiate Cup

Chicago, IL — This October, proof that collegiate squash has a bright and prosperous future in the Midwest was apparent at the University Club of Chicago. Since 2004, the number of college teams around the Midwest has tripled (from 3 to 9), yet most teams still need to travel to the coasts to find a multi-team event. I wanted that to change. In 2008 I worked with Kenyon College Coach John Knepper to arrange an “Indiana vs. Ohio” match that pitted Notre Dame and Purdue against Kenyon and Denison. The event has grown to include additional teams and is now known as the “Kenyon Round Robin.”

Still looking for an even larger event, I reached out to the University Club of Chicago (site of the 2010 U.S. Open) and their Athletic Director, John Flanigan, to see if they would be interested in hosting a collegiate tournament. John was aware that the Jesters were looking to hold an event in the Chicago area as well. The Jesters is an international club with branches in the UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia and the United States. The Jesters believe that proactively supporting urban squash and club-level collegiate squash positively impacts the health and image of the sport. As such, the Jesters have partnered with the college squash teams in Atlanta, Georgia, the past several years and were actively working to create additional events around the country.

Representing the Chicago chapter of the Jesters, Carter Kennedy (former Chicago Windy City Open Chairman) worked with John and me to create a first-class annual tournament for teams from across the Midwest, dubbed “The Jesters Mid America Collegiate Cup.” The inaugural class of teams included the University of Notre Dame, Purdue University, University of Illinois (Champaign), University of Illinois (Springfield), and Swarthmore College.

Competition began on a Friday night when Purdue took on Swarthmore. Swarthmore captain Tarit Rao-Chakravorti was one of the first to sign up for a spot in the new event despite the grueling 15-hour drive that it required of the team. But they quickly showed why it was a trip worth taking, opening the tournament with a decisive 8-1 victory over the Boilermakers.

The following morning, all five of the teams were on hand and the UCC was alive with great squash and cheering crowds. The University of Illinois (Champaign) opened with a win, handing Purdue their second loss by a score of 8-1. UIC had six players who were new to the team, though not to squash. They were also a man short with their #4 out of the early lineups. Team captain Vedant Bubna was proud of his team’s depth, claiming, “This team is our strongest yet by far.” He was also excited about his new players – both freshmen and transfer students – and their contribution to the team. Bubna was already looking ahead to his team’s match with Swarthmore, with whom they have had very close matches in two of the last three years at the Men’s College Squash Association’s National Team Championships.

John Flanigan

University Club of Chicago's John Flanigan

Swarthmore started the morning with their match against the University of Illinois (Springfield). The Springfield team is still led by its founder, John Tienken, and captain Charlie Dobson, but they have added several new faces to their lineup. Springfield’s inexperience showed, as Swarthmore beat Springfield 9-0.

Next up for Swarthmore was the University of Notre Dame. This was the first meeting for the two teams, and I was anxious before the match. We have a few new players this year in the heart of our lineup, and some of our top players couldn’t make this trip. I felt that the matches against our perennial opponents Illinois-Champaign and Purdue would be more telling about how good we really were going to be this year. If we can win a few this weekend without those guys, we could finish the season with our best record ever. This first match of the season was not the kind of start I was hoping for as Swarthmore dominated the match, winning 8-1.

In the first of the Saturday afternoon matchups, the Fighting Irish met up with the University of Illinois (Champaign). UIC was still missing their #4 player, and was forced to shift everyone up a spot. Fortunately, they were able to keep a full roster as they had brought an alternate player. Even a bit of “Irish luck” wasn’t enough to help Notre Dame avoid being swept from bottom to top, and UIC won the match 9-0.

Meanwhile, Purdue was facing off against the University of Illinois (Springfield), in what turned out to be the most closely contested match of the day. Springfield won in the heart of the lineup, leading 4 matches to 3 with the top two yet to play. The Boilermakers rallied to take both matches, though, and win the overall team match 5-3.

The late afternoon matches kicked off with the much-anticipated rematch of Swarthmore and UI-Champaign. By the time of their match, both UIC and Swarthmore had both played Purdue with the exact same results (8-1 victories), so their match looked to be a close one yet again. UIC’s team captain Bubna confidently predicted that they would come out on top, however, with a “5-4 victory for Illinois.” The Illini jumped out to an early lead, losing only two games in the first three matches (held at the 3, 6, and 9 spots). Despite Swarthmore’s dominating play in the 1 and 2 positions, UIC finished the match with a 7-2 victory, exceeding even Bubna’s prediction. This gave Swarthmore a tournament record of 3 and 1, and a second-place finish overall.

On the other set of courts, Notre Dame and UIS were both desperate to get their first win of the tournament. At that point in the season, the #3 spot on the Irish roster was held by freshman Mike O’Neill, Notre Dame’s first “recruited” player for squash. O’Neill faced a strong competitor in opponent Carson Buss, and needed all five games – three of them requiring extra points – to capture his first collegiate win. Notre Dame would likewise snag its first win of the season, going 7-2 against UIS. Team captain Dennis Grabowski, who won his match in four games, reflected positively on ND’s showing. “We lost six of our top players due to the timing of this event, which coincided with the first weekend of our school’s fall break. That we were able to take one of our matches at all, much less while providing many of the younger players with valuable experience – that’s a win in my book.” He grinned, adding, “We’re a team to watch out for this year.”

Sunday morning saw the last two matches of the weekend pit the 1-2 Purdue Boilermakers against the similarly 1-2 Notre Dame Irish, and the 3-0 Champaign team against the 0-3 Springfield team.

Players at the 2011 Jesters Mid America Collegiate Cup

Players at the 2011 Jesters Mid America Collegiate Cup

The Purdue – ND match proved to be everything that both teams hoped for in terms of competitiveness and drama. After see-sawing back and forth with the end of each individual match, it all came down to the #4 match. Purdue’s DH Lee took the first game, but then Notre Dame’s Kevin Sandner fought back to take the next two games. Lee refocused and took the fourth game. As the two players, drenched in sweat and striving to summon their last ounces of energy, returned to the court, the rest of their teammates and family members were crowded just outside the glass back wall, cheering on their favorite. In the fifth and deciding game, neither player could mount a run of more than 4 points at a time. Lee (Purdue) would eventually win the fifth game to take the match 5-4, granting the Boilermakers a 2-2 record and the third-place tournament position, with Notre Dame finishing fourth. Purdue will be traveling to South Bend for a rematch in mid-November, and I think that the Irish will be ready and waiting to exact their revenge.

The final match of the weekend seemed like a schizophrenic affair: the University of Illinois against itself. The match actually pitted opposing campuses of the same school against each other, with UI-Champaign facing off against the UI-Springfield campus. As the excitement that had filled the University Club all weekend came to a close just about noon on Sunday, the team from Champaign won the match 9-0, finishing the tournament 4-0 and winning the first-ever “Jesters Mid America Collegiate Cup” with style.