Boston, MA — Harvard University defeated Yale University this afternoon in the Howe Cup final to win 2012 Women’s National Team Championships. Harvard senior captain Cece Cortes won the fifth and deciding match 3-1 to clinch Harvard’s second national title in three years.
Today’s contest was a rematch from the 2011 Howe Cup final, which was hosted by Princeton. Last season, Harvard and Yale came into the championship tournament having played each other the week before during their last regular season match. That match, which decided the Ivy League title, came down to the final individual match, which Caroline Reigeluth won to make Yale the 2011 Ivy League champions.
In the 2011 Howe Cup final, the overall match score was tied 4-4 going into the final match. Yale’s Kimberley Hay, then a first-year player, defeated Harvard’s June Tiong, a senior, in four games to win the national title.
Though Yale was the defending national champion, Harvard looked like the team to beat coming into this season. Yale had graduated three seniors from their top nine: Reigeluth, Sarah Toomey, and Logan Greer, the winner of the 2011 Richey Award, which recognizes the top senior player and sportswoman in college squash. Yale did return Hay and 2011 national women’s individual champion Millie Tomlinson, as well as a core of seasoned starters from last year’s national championship team: seniors Aly Kerr, Alexandra van Arkel, and Rhetta Nadas, the Bulldogs’ captain; junior Katie Ballaine; and sophomores Lilly Fast and Gwen Tilghman. The Bulldogs also had several new faces in the line-up, including Shihui Mao and Issey Norman-Ross, who play in the bottom third of the varsity ladder.
Harvard had lost Tiong and three other starters from last season to graduation: Alisha Mashruwala, Bethan Williams, and Ali Zindman. Like Yale, the Crimson returned a cadre of varsity players with championship experience: senior co-captains Nirasha Guruge and Cece Cortes; and juniors Natasha Kingshott, Sarah Mumanachit, and Laura Gemmell, the 2010 national individual champion and 2011 individual finalist. All five returners were on the Crimson squad that won the 2010 national team title over Penn.
What really raised eyebrows, though, was Harvard’s blue-chip recruiting class. Haley Mendez and Julianne Chu both represented the United States at the World Junior Championships this past summer, and Megan Murray has also had an accomplished junior career. Then there is Amanda Sobhy, the 2010 world junior champion and a 2011 world junior semifinalist who has been ranked as high as 17th in the world. Sobhy became Harvard’s new #1, sliding Gemmell, herself a dominant collegiate player, down to #2.
Given the depth of their first-year class, the Crimson were ranked #1 in the preseason rankings, and they cruised through most of the regular season. Princeton nearly pulled off the upset of the season in January, tying the match score 4-4 before Mendez came back from being down 0-2 to keep Harvard’s perfect season intact.
Not to be outdone, Yale marched through their regular season campaign, defeating Princeton 7-2 but finding themselves in a 4-all situation the next day against Penn. Tomlinson came through with a win at #1 to maintain the Bulldogs’ own perfect record.
Both Harvard and Yale were undefeated coming into their regular season match in New Haven two weeks ago, and once again the Ivy League title was on the line. And once again the match came down to the final individual contest. Mendez came through with another clutch win, and Harvard became the 2012 Ivy League champions.
So in each of Harvard and Yale’s last three meetings a title has been on the line, and each of those titles has been determined by a one-match margin. Harvard has held onto the top spot in the national rankings all season and had home-court advantage today. But the Bulldogs had no intention of rolling over and giving up the national title.
Before the tournament began, all the divisional winners from last year’s championships returned the permanent trophies so that they would be ready for this year’s winners. All of last year’s winners, that is, except Yale: the Bulldogs kept the Howe Cup on their team bus throughout the weekend. Yale wasn’t giving up the team title without a fight. They advanced to the final with a 9-0 win over Cornell in the opening round and a 7-2 win over Princeton in the semifinals. Harvard swept both Dartmouth in the opening round and Trinity in the semis.
Harvard took the early lead, going up 2-1 after the first round of matches. Guruge won in three games for Harvard at #3, and Norman-Ross won in three for Yale at #9. The #6 match between Kingshott and Tilghman was the closest of the round. The second game was a marathon, going to 18-16 in Kingshott’s favor. The Harvard junior was at match ball in the third when Tilghman began to stage a run, but it was too late. Kingshott’s win put Harvard ahead.
In the second round, Gemmell dispatched Hay in three games at #2. In the #7 match, Fast kept Yale in it by forcing a fourth game with Chu, but the first-year player came back strong and won the fourth game, giving Harvard a 4-1 lead in the overall match score. On the next court over, Cortes was leading Ballaine 2-1. The Yale junior dove for several balls, but Cortes was untouchable, going up almost into double digits before Ballaine got on the board. “Let’s go!” she shouted before serving. Cortes, however, would not yield, winning 11-1 in the fourth. She walked over to Ballaine and shook her hand, and the two walked off court together before Cortes’ overjoyed teammates surrounded her.
Several matches are still left to be played, but Harvard has clinched the 2012 national title. CollegeSquashAssociation.com will update this article as more scores come in.
UPDATE: The final match score was Harvard 8, Yale 1. Sobhy (#1), Mendez (#4), and Mumanachit (#7) all won their matches in three games.