On January 30, 2015, Middlebury hosted Drexel. Middlebury assistant coach Brian Cady wrote this article as a follow up to a 2012 article by Middlebury’s late coach, John Illig.
Middlebury, VT — The temperature outside was hovering just above 0 degrees, the sky was darkening, and a winter storm was blowing snowflakes sideways at gusts of 30 miles-per-hour. But squash (luckily for us here in Vermont) is an indoor game and inside the Panther squads (both men and women) were happily warming up in preparation for their 5 pm match against Drexel University.
To better paint this contrasting picture it is helpful to be familiar with the new Middlebury squash facility. Completed in October of 2013, the structure houses nine courts formed around a large central viewing walkway below a skylight and all glass walls at the facility entrance. The lobby outside the entrance is equally transparent with two outside walls being all glass. Without going into more detail, someone there at the time could turn one direction to watch a winter storm howling across the northern tundra and the other to view 30 student-athletes laughing, sweating and sometimes dancing (the sound system is usually blaring before big matches) in preparation for Drexel.
Drexel had not yet arrived. Their bus trip from Philadelphia was hindered by traffic, storm related accidents, and bus breakdowns. After almost 8 hours of driving, the last 3 of which were dominated by winter storm swept rural highway, it must have come as a shock for some on the Drexel team to suddenly enter a warm, bright and loud squash facility that by all appearances was located three hours into the middle of nowhere.
Drexel did, however, have a few things working in their favor in regards to that evening’s match up. Namely that they were the 12th-ranked and 14th-ranked teams in the country (men’s and women’s respectively) and were coached by former world #1 John White. They were a talented, well coached and battle-proven team from top to bottom. Any idea of victory in the eye of a realist was more of a dream than a goal. After all, the Middlebury men’s team was ranked 17th in the country and a jump of 5 positions in this day and age of college squash does not really happen. The women, on the other hand, had a much more reasonable shot at victory, having just been moved to 13th in the rankings. They would go on to cement their new ranking with a 6-3 victory that evening over Drexel.
By the time the Drexel teams arrived with coaches John White and Kelsey Engman, we had already agreed to push back the start time of the match to allow for a proper warm-up. Everyone was set for the start of the match. But someone was missing that evening.
John Illig (“JI”) the Middlebury men’s and women’s squash coach for the past seven seasons and driver behind the creation of the new facility that was sheltering us from the winter storm, had passed away suddenly and tragically last summer before the start of the season. Initial emotions of shock, despair, disbelief, and sorrow experienced by team members and alumni have evolved into nostalgia, remembrance, and a bittersweet sentiment for John’s life, through the repeated exposure to stories, memories, and events that remind us of JI. The team has banded together and grown closer than I ever experienced during my years in the program.
John was once quoted as saying, “I doubt that my place is to impart wisdom or pass down life knowledge to my squash players, but if there’s one lesson I wish I could give them it was just that they don’t need to be or become anything. If they can be decent and kind, then I already love them for who they are.” This quote gives someone that might not have gotten to know John Illig a good idea of his character. He will be missed by those he coached and his character forever honored by those who join the Middlebury squash program.
The night before the match, Reed Palmer, the 2014-15 co-captain of the men’s team, sent the team an email with a link to an article titled, “Drexel Visits Middlebury” written by John after Middlebury’s last home match against Drexel in 2012. John’s article describes in intricate JI detail (as only someone who has read something written by John can understand) the play by play of the last home Middlebury-Drexel encounter. Please feel free to read the article. In short, the match was all but lost until then-sophomore Robert Galluccio (our other 2014-15 co-captain of the men’s team) made a impossible comeback from 2-1 down in games and 8-2 down in points in the fourth. That, combined with an improbable win from a newly injured Jay Dolan, saw Middlebury take the match 5-4. Needless to say the article, along with Reed’s own inspiring words, put the team in the right mind-set to give Drexel men a great fight the following day.
With the email from the night before stoking emotions of nostalgia, the men showed up with an attitude of resolute determination. Knowing the improbability of a win, I had the good sense to keep my mouth shut and let them focus on the words of interim head-coach Mike Morgan: “Let’s make the next three hours the longest three hours of these guys’ lives.” They took these words to heart.
Introductions were lengthened on that day to respect “Senior Day” or the senior’s last home match of the season. While the women had cards, flowers and poems prepared, the men kept their acknowledgements short. When asked before the match if co-captain Rob Galluccio was offended that his teammates didn’t get him flowers he responded, “All I want today are W’s.”
Wyatt French, playing in the #3 position, blasted out of the gate with a 3-0 “W” over top-50 college squash player Ibrahim Bakir. With blistering pace and sheer determination, Wyatt quietly produced a result that simply should not have been and boosted Panther confidence along with it. At the #9 position, Cam Dewey took care of business and pulled out a win in four games.
On the center court, the #6 match had not even finished its third game. Eventually going to five games, this was one of the longest matches I’ve ever watched. Both players refused to stop running, and neither wanted to make a mistake. Their styles were those of attrition, and they were evenly matched. Middlebury’s David Cromwell ended up taking the match 11-9 in the fifth, ending with the longest point I’ve seen in my life. The point went on for five minutes. Teammates recall going to warm-up, coming back and the same match-point still going on. Cromwell ended it finally with a perfect drop shot. After the match was over he said, “I told myself before the serve that this next point was going to be the longest of his guy’s life.” He was right.
We were only up 3-0 for a short time. Our #2, Andrew Cadienhead, was defeated in four games shortly after Cromwell’s epic five-gamer. We needed two more wins to clinch a team victory, and it wasn’t looking good. Our #1 match up was going to be a long shot due to the strength of the Drexel #1. Our #4, Harrison Croll, had injured his ankle the weekend before, and this was his first time back on court for a match. Our #7, Will Hanley, had separated his shoulder over break and then pulled his groin the week before; this was also his first time back on court. And our #8, Robert Gallucio, was 2-1 down in his match. Although we got off to a great start, the next two match wins were looking like they were going to be hard to get. On top of that, the Drexel team had suddenly started to take each match very seriously as they were fully aware of the position they were in. It was at this point, similar to the position John Illig described in the “Drexel Visits Middlebury” article, the match was not looking like it was going to go our way. I resigned myself to taking positives out of our great start and solid individual match victories against a team ranked #12 in the country.
But then Galluccio rallied. He started playing at a relentless pace and overwhelmed the Drexel #8. He cruised to victory in the fifth game just like he did two years ago against Drexel. It was a very impressive win for him, and it came at exactly the right time.
With only one “W” needed to take the match there was suddenly electricity in the air. Will Kurth (#5) was down 2-1 on the center court. Everyone was watching recently injured #7 Will Hanley as he cruised to 2-0 up against his opponent. With his injuries looming Hanley fought hard and pulled out the third game for the last win needed to clinch the match. After respectfully shaking hands, he was mobbed by the rest of team that had just achieved a victory over the highest ranked team in our men’s program’s history.
John Illig was a man of contrasting personality traits. On the one hand he was incredibly outdoorsy and fond of nature, (he has hiked the height of the continental USA three times), yet he coached a strictly indoor game in a regulated environment. JI was “anti-establishment,” but he chose to coach squash, traditionally played by people who are “part of the system,” if you will. John was kind and gentle, but he was simultaneously a ruthless competitor who was focused on winning.
As the remaining matches finished up, the winter storm outside was still raging. A desolate, unwelcoming, and harsh landscape contrasted with the warm, emotional environment of the squash courts. That moment would have suited John well. He would have appreciated ruminating about the match’s comment on circular history equally as much as the five hard-earned W’s produced by his Middlebury men.