Cambridge, MA — Harvard defeated Trinity by a score of 7-2 to win the Howe Cup and the 2015 Women’s National Team Championships. The Crimson won on their home courts at the Murr Center.
Even though Trinity was the defending national champion, Harvard was the favorite coming into the season. The Crimson were ranked first in the CSA’s preseason poll, and they stayed atop the rankings until early January, when they were upset by the University of Pennsylvania. A week later Trinity claimed the top spot after knocking off Penn, 5-4.
Trinity and Harvard didn’t play each other this season until early February. The individual contests were close; six of the nine matches went past three games, with a number of games going to extra points. But the overall score was decisive: Harvard won 8-1.
Harvard seemed to have the edge coming into the Women’s National Team Championships. The Crimson were playing at home, and they were the top seeds. To get to the final, Trinity would have to get past Penn, a team they had narrowly beat out during the regular season. Harvard, on the other hand, would have to play Princeton, a team they had defeated 7-2 during the regular season.
While Trinity did have a grueling semifinal match against Penn, Harvard didn’t have it much easier. A determined Princeton squad led the Crimson 4-2 going into the final flight of matches. Harvard won the next two matches to even the score, and the team match was tied 4-all going into the last match on court, the #7 contest between Dileas MacGowan of Harvard and Tara Harrington of Princeton.
As MacGowan and Harrington began their match, another dramatic contest was underway a few courts down. The Trinity-Penn match was also tied at 4-all, and that match had also come down to the #7s, Natalie Babjukova of Trinity and Camille Lanier of Penn. Babjukova came back from 1-2 down to win her match in five games, giving Trinity a shot at defending their national title. A few minutes later, MacGowan secured Harvard’s spot in the final with a three-game win over Harrington.
The weather gave both teams extra time to recover as the final was moved back several hours because of the winter storm that hammered Boston overnight. Players awoke on Sunday to whiteout conditions, but by the time play began in the afternoon, the skies in the Boston area had cleared.
During introductions for the championship final, Harvard senior Amanda Sobhy was recognized as the 2015 Richey Award winner. The Richey Award is the top individual award in women’s college squash. It is given annually to a player who best exemplifies the ideals of squash in her love of and devotion to the game, her strong sense of fairness, and her excellence of play and leadership.
The first flight of matches featured Harvard’s Isabelle Dowling versus Trinity’s Sachika Balvani at #9, Trinity’s Salma El Defrawy versus Harvard’s Saumya Karki at #6, and Harvard’s Alyssa Mehta versus Trinity’s Anna Kimberley at #3.
Trinity’s El Defrawy won the first point of the final, but her opponent, Karki, ultimately won the first match. Karki’s 3-1 win put Harvard on the board first. Trinity answered with a win from Balvani, who held off a surging Dowling 11-8 in the fifth. On the glass court, Mehta powered to a 2-0 lead at #3 and looked to win in three. Kimberley, however, regrouped in game 3 to win 12-10 and force a fourth game. She nearly made it to a fifth, but Mehta pulled out an 11-9 win in the fourth. Harvard now led 2-1 over Trinity.
The second flight of matches featured Raneem Sharaf (Trinity) versus Katie Tutrone (Harvard) at #2, Sue Ann Yong (Havard) versus Ashley Tidman (Trinity) at #5, and Karolina Holinkova (Trinity) versus Julianne Chu (Harvard) at #8.
Yong, a first-year player who has gone undefeated this season, dispatched senior co-captain Tidman in three quick games. After the first two games, it looked like Chu would cruise to a three-game win as well. Holinkova, a first-year student, had other ideas. She came within game ball, but Chu came from behind to tie the game 10-10 and then win 12-10. Chu, a senior, grabbed a camera and took a picture of the fans in the stands who had cheered her on before leaving the court.
With Sharaf and Tutrone locked in battle on the glass court, it looked like the deciding match could be the #4 contest between Harvard junior Michelle Gemmell and Trinity first-year Julia Le Coq. Gemmell won the first game 11-9, coming from behind, and ran away with the second, 11-3. Sharaf won in four over Tutrone, but it looked like it would only be a matter of time before Harvard sealed the win.
Le Coq capitalized on a few missed shots from Gemmell to run up a small lead early. Gemmell tied it at 4-all before play was stopped for injury. When play resumed, Le Coq again built up a small lead, and Gemmell tied it at 8-all. Gemmell pulled ahead to match point, but Le Coq came from behind to win the game 12-10. Meanwhile, MacGowan won her first game against Babjukova at #7, and Sobhy won her first game at #1 against Kanzy El Defrawy.
Le Coq and Gemmell traded points. MacGowan and Babjukova traded points. But Sobhy, undefeated in four years of collegiate play, began to open up a sizable lead over El Defrawy on the glass court. Sobhy won the second game 11-4. Babjukova and MacGowan were tied at 8-all. Gemmell and Le Coq were also tied at 8-all, and Sobhy was powering ahead. A few minutes earlier, the outcome of the match had seemed inevitable. Harvard still had the edge, but how would it all play out?
Gemmell pulled ahead to 10-8 and it looked like the match was hers. Le Coq kept her composure and evened the score at 10-all and then 11-all. Gemmell finally inched ahead and captured the match — and the national title — with a 13-11 win in the fourth. Sobhy won her match moments later. MacGowan and Babjukova played on, but the outcome of the team match had been decided: Harvard was the 2015 national champion!
The final score was Harvard 7, Trinity 2, with MacGowan winning 12-10 in the fourth.
This is Harvard’s 15th Howe Cup title. The Crimson are coached by Mike Way, the Gregory Lee ’87 and Russell Ball ’88 Endowed Coach for Squash at Harvard University, and assistant coaches Hameed Ahmed, Luke Hammond, and Beth Zeitlin. Haley Mendez and Megan Murray are co-captains.