A little under two weeks ago, on the C-Floor of the Jadwin Gymansium, right across from the Fencing Center, the Princeton Women’s Squash team, won their second national title in a row. A strong season, marred only by two 4-5 losses to archrivals Penn and Trinity, culminated in a dramatic final 6-3 victory over Penn.
“We definitely weren’t the favorites going into this,” senior and captain Casey Riley said. “But we pulled it out.” Riley wasn’t exaggerating. The women’s squash team, by many counts, was not the favorite to win this year’s Howe Cup. Coming off of last year’s victory and national title having lost four seniors to graduation, the team’s prospects were “uncertain” and “iffy.” Add losing these seniors to the fact that said seniors often played in the upper portion of the roster and one turns “uncertain” into “underdog.” The team, according to Head Coach Gail Ramsay, was still solid, but winning the national title wasn’t a sure thing, at any point. Starting off the year, there was an expectation that every match would count; every game had the potential to be the deciding factor in a win or a loss.
Squash, at first glance, appears to be one of the most purely “individual” sports on the market. After all, as senior and captain, Margaret Kent put it, when you get down to the core of what squash is – “It’s you and someone else in a box hitting a ball around.” However, this year for the women’s squash team, the catchphrase wasn’t “how did you do?” but, “how did your team do?”
“We definitely felt that if we were to do well this year, it would have to be much more of a group effort,” senior and captain Carly Grabowski said.
However, the real story isn’t that the team worked very hard or trained exceptionally rigorously (it did both), but that it did so under the leadership of Grabowski, Kent and Riley.
Coach Ramsay agreed, saying that the sense of team unity and cohesiveness was “exceptionally strong” this year and that it was a “pretty big” factor in the team’s new national title.
“They’re all such different personalities.” Ramsay mused. “It could have gone disastrously. But, it ended up being the best mix possible.”
Even amongst themselves, the captains concur that they are exceedingly different people.
“Well, I guess I’m sort of the ‘fun one.’” Riley said.
“The ‘social chair’, the one who laughs the most,” Kent added.
“And Margaret was the one you could always talk to, always share your problems with, friend and counselor to everyone,” Grabowski said.
“While Carly was the one who got things done, who kept things running. Although she could always relax and have fun, she was definitely the most organized and ‘with it’ of us,” Riley said.
In an odd, tri-partite way, this year’s victory was due, in no small measure to the chemistry between the captains and consequently, with the rest of the team.
The captains, in a surprise to this reporter, play a rather large role in how the team works and plays together throughout the year. Beginning with “Captains’ Practice” or “pre-season”, the team works out from August to October under the leadership of the team captains. Largely conditioning and fitness, practices are everyday and led by the captains. However, despite being un-official (in the NCAA sense), these practices set the tone for the rest of the year. It also serves as a testing ground for the leadership skills of the incoming captain(s).
“I think when we came back, we, as a team, were unsure of what to expect from these three,” Scoon said. “But, from the very beginning, they were on top of their stuff and leading us, helping us, getting these done.”
Then, in October, official NCAA practices begin and the coach takes over. Spending almost 17 hours a week in Jadwin, squash is as demanding and time-consuming a sport as any other. But, for the captains, it becomes a full-time occupation. What was once a sport that consumed a moderately large chunk of time, became “the most important thing we do on campus” for these three ladies.
“You don’t really play as well if there isn’t a sense of team cohesiveness, a sense of unity,” Kent said. “Especially in such a highly individual sport like squash, you have to have something else to play for, to reach for. Something bigger than yourself. And we tried to get that message across to the rest of the girls.”
And they did. Whether it was team dinners, a Fall Break “training” trip to Trinidad and Tobago or just hanging out after practice, the captains put a premium on attendance and participation. They made events not about any one person or event, but about the team. Granted, there were ups and downs. Sometimes, there would be a bit of strife – as it is with all organizations. Challenge matches, scheduling conflicts and injuries all conspired to undermine the message of unity the captains were trying to broadcast. However, as Grabowski said, “at the end of the day, we’re all on the same team and there’s not much we can do about it except enjoy.” And, that it seems, is not too difficult.
“It wasn’t hard at all [to hang out with these girls],” Riley said. “I think of these girls as my closest friends on campus. I’d call them my friends before I’d say they’re my teammates.” Kent nodded in agreement.
There is little that can describe the culminating effect of the captains’ leadership better than the final match-up with Penn and the aftermath. When, in the final match of the tournament, Grabowski, in an extremely close five-setter with Annie Madeira, walked off the court, the team was in ecstasy. Under the stands of the Jadwin’s C-Floor, the team cried and hugged and cried some more. And then took lots of pictures. On the following Monday, the team decompressed together, taking the day off and hanging out to celebrate.
But this year, Scoon said, winning the tournament felt different. “We really were a cohesive unit, a team, a real sisterhood,” she said. “We worked so hard for that title and in the end, it showed – because we really earned it.”
For the captains, though, it was a little bittersweet. Seniors all, they agreed that winning this second title was incredibly satisfying – especially as a cap to, for all of them, tremendous collegiate squash careers. However, the real world awaits with jobs and desks and Blackberries and they’re all quite morose at leaving Princeton and competitive squash behind.
“Things are uncertain in terms of who’ll be on the team and who’ll be the captain and who’ll play what spot,” Riley said. “But, one thing I’m sure will remain is the unity. Even when we’re gone, I think the team will be just as cohesive and strong as it was when we were here.”
At a place like Princeton, where competition is the hallmark and one-upping the norm and in a sport that is, in this reporter’s opinion, highly individual, light still beams at the end of the tunnel. Not just a sense of community, but also a stronger and more irrevocable sense of unity and accord can thrive in a space that is, for all intents and purposes, rather hostile to it. It may be just you and someone else in that 32-by-21-foot box, smacking a ball against the walls – and while the question “How did you do” is entirely relevant – this reporter, after hitting that ball around, would much rather be asked “How did your team do?”