Excerpts from A History of Squash at Brunswick School

At the High School Nationals at the Fairmount Athletic Club in suburban Philadelphia, Brunswick edged Springside Chestnut Hill 4-3 in the semifinals, weathering a raucous pro-Chestnut Hill crowd Both Odrich and Yousef Hindy lost, 11-9 in the fifth (in Odrich’s case when he barely tinned what would have been a winning backhand drop after a 90-shot-plus exchange on the last point), but the Bruins got wins in the top two and bottom two positions, with Berner rallying from love-two down to an 11-9 fifth-game win over Brian Hamilton in the No. 7 match and Murphy notching the clinching fourth point in three two-point games (13-11, 12-10 and 11-9) over Sean Kenny. Berner fell prey to some early-match nerves and the pressure of the crowd, losing the first two games 11-5 and 11-3. But he then buckled down, running off with the 11-4 third and grinding out the remainder, during which he had to survive a number of lengthy, attritional exchanges, including on the decisive point at 10-9 in the fifth game.

    In the final against Avon Old Farms (a 4-3 semis winner over Haverford), Fitzgerald, Carney and Berner dropped only 21 total points in winning their nine combined games, but Avon’s top four all came through. Yacobucci came the closest to a breakthrough, winning his fourth game against Avon No. 2 Hussein (saving three-match-balls against him along the way) in a 12-10 tiebreaker before losing the fifth 11-6. Brunswick still led 3-2 late in the going, but Kelly evened the score with a straight-game win over Hindy, following which Attiah defeated Murphy to seal the title for his school. Murphy’s best chance came in the second game, which he lost 12-10, setting the stage for Attiah to take the close-out third game 11-5. The final point of the Attiah/Murphy match --- a forehand overhead that Attiah emphatically powered into the front-left nick to finish with a flourish --- immediately followed by Avon’s team celebration, made it onto the “Top Ten Plays” list on the ESPN Sports Center telecast the following morning.

   It was the seventh time in the 10 editions of this tournament that Brunswick had advanced to --- but never through --- the final round of the High School Nationals. No other school had as many final-round appearances, but no other school had lost in the final round more than once. There were four different schools --- Lawrenceville (2004-06), Penn Charter (2007-08), Episcopal Academy (2009-12) and Avon Old Farms (2014) --- that had won this tournament, and all four had done so at least once at Brunswick’s final-round expense. As one player lamented, “It felt like every year there was a different school that finished at No. 1 and one school that kept finishing at No. 2.” Brunswick ran away from the rest of the field in the NEISA tournament at Brooks School in Massachusetts, amassing 114 points to second-place Deerfield’s 95. Hindy, Fitzgerald, Berner and Carney swept the Nos. 4 through 7, while up top, Hayes placed fourth; Yacobucci, ranked eighth in the world in the Under-17’s after quarterfinal advances in both the British and U. S. Junior Opens, was third in the No. 2 flight; and Odrich also ended up third in the No. 3 division. Avon Old Farms, weighed down by early exits from its bottom three players, finished 10th and also lost its season-ending dual meet to Deerfield when Khalifa, the New England Individual champion for the second straight year, beat Attiah in the deciding match.

    It was an honor to win the team tournament for the 12th time and to know that 18 of its squash alumni were playing for college teams, five of them (Matthew Mackin at Trinity, Chris Baldock at Stanford, Parker Hurst at Middlebury, Reid Breck at George Washington and John Dudzik at Penn) serving as captains. Murphy was also honored individually when he was named to the inaugural U. S. Squash All-American High School team, after which he played in the top tier of the men’s squash team at Penn, where he made second-team all-American in 2016. “Hayes has taught the younger players a lot,” Yacobucci said about Murphy’s leadership skills. “He showed us how important it is to view ourselves as a team in what many view as an individual sport. We’ll look to build upon his legacy going forward.”

    That legacy included Murphy being selected as the recipient of the Jenkins Cup as the best all-around athlete of the Brunswick Class of 2014. But Yacobucci’s words of praise and admiration aside, the continued inability to capture the High School Nationals hung over the program like a pall that grew with each passing year. There was a strong sentiment throughout the Brunswick squash community --- with the program as strong and deep and it was, and with the pipeline of middle-school players (which had enabled Brunswick to win the U. S. National Middle School Championship throughout the four-year period from 2009-12) constantly funneling good players into the high school roster --- that the breakthrough was only a matter of time. But the annual disappointment, often by the barest of margins and the most capricious of circumstances, was getting on everyone’s nerves, especially the 2014 event, when Brunswick was denied by a team that no one had ever heard of a year earlier and almost half of whose varsity players wouldn’t even have made Brunswick’s JV squad.


  Coach Stephens may have been expressing this cumulative frustration when, at the outset of the speech he gave to his assembled players and their parents at the team dinner, he described squash as “a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.” Normally in his speeches he focused on the way the game requires honor and commitment, while also congratulating his players on their accomplishments in a given season, without veering off into such a complicated philosophical direction about the inner nature of the sport. He went on further to characterize the game as “tantalizing, frustrating and at the same time fascinating….It is a science of Euclidean angles, spins, speeds and trajectories, a test of temper and a revealer of character. It is a study of a lifetime in which you may exhaust yourself but never your subject. It is a contest, a dual, a fight, calling for courage, skill, strategy, self-control and, most important of all, patience.” Stephens himself had demonstrated the patience of Job over the years; indeed, it was probably this quality, along with his unflappability, no matter the circumstance, that his players from every student generation cited more than any other about their coach and mentor. But by this juncture, even he must have been wondering when, or if, Brunswick’s squash team would finally get the High School Nationals monkey off its collective back.

    Possibly reflecting this feeling as well, the 2014-15 season did not get off to an auspicious start, as the preseason challenge matches were characterized by poor sportsmanship, arguing and disputing lets and stroke calls. The situation deteriorated to the point where Coach Stephens took the unprecedented step in late autumn of deciding to eliminate all future challenge matches and announcing that he would use his own discretion in determining the lineup. It turned out to be an extremely wise move, one that ended the infighting, settled the players down (without the pressure of an impending challenge match hanging over them), restored team harmony and got everyone pulling in the same direction. The order wound up being Yacobucci at No. 1, followed by first-year senior Senen Ubina, co-captains Odrich and Hindy, then Fitzgerald, Carney and junior Drew Monroe. They went undefeated through the dual-meet portion of the season and rode their No. 1 seeding to a trio of consecutive 7-0 victories over Lawrenceville, Episcopal Academy and Springside Chestnut Hill en route to the final round of the High School Nationals, which were held that year at Trinity College.  After the semifinal win on Saturday evening, co-captains Hindy and Odrich sent an email to the entire student body in the Upper School notifying them that they had reached the final and urging those who could to travel to Hartford to support them on Sunday. The next day, several dozen made the trip through bad weather to add their presence to the proceedings. Four members of Brunswick’s starting seven --- Yacobucci, Odrich, Hindy and Fitzgerald --- had played on the Brunswick Middle School team that had won the Middle School Nationals four years earlier in 2011, and all season they had been pointing to the chance to win the counterpart national championship at the high-school level as well.

   Brunswick’s opponent, Belmont Hill, the first school from the Boston area to reach the finals of this tournament, had defeated defending champion Avon Old Farms 4-3 when Belmont Hill No. 1 Timmy Brownell, the top-ranked player in the U. S. Under-19 division, out-played Omar El Atmas in four games. Avon had barely survived a 4-3 round-of-16 match against Brunswick’s Varsity B team when Avon’s No. 4 player Dennis Jones defeated Brunswick freshman Will Holey, 11-6 in the fourth, in the last match on court. It would have been a singular accomplishment for the second team (which subsequently won all three of its back-draw matches to place ninth overall) to have knocked off the defending champion, and Brunswick’s Varsity B team, helped along by some vociferous cheering by the Varsity A players who commandeered the gallery overlooking those courts, came very close to pulling it off.

     The fact that the final-round main-draw matches would be handled by referees hired by U. S. Squash (after all the pre-final rounds had been refereed by the players) added a further dimension to the tension between these two schools, each of which was seeking its first-ever High School Nationals title. So did the fact that the final was nip and tuck all the way as the two teams traded wins throughout the increasingly tumultuous afternoon.  Monroe gave Brunswick an early edge with an 11-6 fifth-game win over Belmont Hill No. 7 James Bell. The next two pairs of matches that went on were both evenly divided: first, Fitzgerald’s four-game win over Belmont Hill No. 5 Jack Bell was counter-balanced when Clark Doyle, the son of Harvard’s former CSA Hall of Fame coach Bill Doyle, survived a third-game tiebreaker and rallied past Ubina in the No. 2 match by scores of 3-11, 5-11, 12-10, 11-5, 11-9. Then Carney straight-gamed Belmont Hill No. 6 Alexander Curtin but Curtin’s teammate Spencer Anton prevailed over Odrich, thereby leaving Brunswick still needing to win one of the remaining two matches to clinch the team outcome.

      Hindy won two extremely close games against Belmont Hill No. 4 Blake Gilbert-Bono, only to then lose the third and fourth. But by the time Hindy re-entered the court to play his fifth game (which he lost 11-7), the national championship had been decided by the two No. 1 players, Yacobucci and Brownell. Yacobucci, the No. 1 ranked American player in the Under-17’s, had greatly improved his game by playing on the U. S. National Junior Team that competed in the biennial World Junior Championships in Africa (where Brownell had been one of his teammates) during the prior summer, and he also played in the British Junior Open during the Christmas break. But Brownell had won the U. S. Junior Open only two months earlier, a massive achievement against some of the best junior players in the world, and he had lost to Yacobucci only once in their half-dozen prior matches. Knowing that, in addition to this backdrop, Yacobucci was dealing with a head cold and hacking cough, Stephens advised his young star to avoid playing long points to the extent possible, and instead to look to shoot whenever the opportunity to do so arose. His nickname for Yacobucci was “the Butcher” in deference to the way the latter could slice opponents up with his front-court salvos. Yacobucci also had a nickname for Stephens, namely “the Hammer,” since frequently when Yacobucci had recorded two games in a given match, Stephens’s between-games exhortation was, “Okay, David, it’s Hammer Time.”

   Right from the outset, Yacobucci, who had a knack for “finding an extra gear when he needed to,” according to Coach Boynton, applied the game plan that Stephens had drawn up to perfection, his effectiveness that day aided by the fact that the show court at Trinity (where the match was played) rewarded accurate shot-making much more than the other courts in the massive George Kellner Center. Yacobucci had actually won the U. S. Junior Open Under-11 title on this same court in 2008, which helped raise his confidence level. “He looked like he knew he was going to have a really good day,” Ubina said afterwards, whereas Brownell, clearly feeling the pressure of expectations, looked nervous, tentative and uncomfortable. Yacobucci was able to win the first game 11-9 with a shallow backhand straight-drop from the back wall, the kind of nervy salvo that animated his game throughout the match, constantly frustrating the normally implacable Brownell and preventing him from finding a rhythm. Yacobucci then fought his way through the 11-9 second as well, though by that stage he was fatigued enough to know that he likely had only one more strong game left in him.

   There was a brief stoppage when, at the midway point of the third game, the spectator involvement ---- extending to loudly berating the refereeing after virtually every call --- had become so intense and hostile that Paul Assaiante, the head coach of the perennially national-champion Trinity College men’s team, and as such the de facto host of the event, felt the need to intercede. He had just returned to campus from having guided his team to yet another victory and was taken aback by the bedlam, to the point where he stepped in front of the gallery, declared, “This has got to stop,” and threatened to halt the match if the abusive behavior continued. Both the on-court play --- which was very physical, with lots of bumping and many referee’s calls as the two players fought for every inch of court --- and the raucous reaction from the multiple hundreds of emotionally involved spectators crammed throughout the arena (including in the balcony area one level up from the action), had made the place, according to the description of one Brunswick parent, “a tinderbox that frequently appeared on the verge of flaring out of control.” The fact that the referee utterly failed to “own the room” by taking an inordinate amount of time before making some of his calls made him even more vulnerable to the second-guessing and criticism that was coming his way.


   Chastened by Assaiante’s lecture, the spectators toned down their actions a notch for the remainder of the match, which, it turned out, ended less than five minutes later.  Yacobucci, sensing that one more hot streak could close it out, hit a few winners when play resumed that brought him to 10-8, at which juncture a demoralized-looking Brownell took a brief injury time-out to get his knee wrapped. When he returned, each player took only one more swing at the ball. Yacobucci hit a chip serve from the right box, in response to which the left-handed Brownell attempted what appeared to be almost a despairing forehand working-boast that didn’t even come close to making it to the front wall. It was a strange ending to an otherwise powerful performance characterized by long, attritional exchanges.  The exhausted but elated Yacobucci was immediately engulfed by his euphoric teammates and praised by Stephens for having been “the hero of the day. That was one of the best athletic performances that I have ever seen at Brunswick. He beat a guy who hadn’t lost all year and was No. 1 in the country --- what an accomplishment. I’ve known David since seventh grade, and that was the best I’ve seen him play, with a big crowd, under pressure, and in the most important moment.” Odrich, who was the first player to hug Yacobucci after he had exited the court, called Yacobucci’s performance “one of the great stories in high-school squash history” and said that he had never seen someone hit as many nicks in a three-game match as Yacobucci did that day. Ultimately, the key to Yacobucci’s upset win was that he kept his shot selection and execution at a high level throughout, while Brownell was always playing from a point or two behind and never managed to get fully into the match or establish any momentum.

    After he had caught his breath, Yacobucci said, "I had a pretty good idea what was going on and that I would maybe need to win that match for the team. Going into the match, I had only beaten him one time before, so I was really surprised at how well I played. We've always had close matches before, so it felt great to pull this one out." He also cited his coach’s early-season decision to eliminate the challenge matches as a big positive factor that calmed the initial chaos and, in Yacobucci’s words, “made us closer as a team. It was a huge factor in our coming together. It made practices more fun and less stressful and it made us really look forward to going to practice every day.”

  As Coach Stephens happily hoisted the Justi Cup for the first time after having to endure watching other coaches do so for more than a decade, he made sure to give all of his players credit for the breakthrough victory --- not only Fitzgerald, Carney and Monroe, his three other victorious players that day, but everyone on the team. “We received great performances in all our matches,” he emphasized. “Every player put his stamp on this championship run. Without embellishment or exaggeration, this is a team for the ages.” He also, with the perspective of having been involved in the High School Nationals from its inception, commented on how the expansion of the tournament itself was a testament to the health and growth of high-school squash throughout the United States.

    Noting that the inaugural version of the event in 2004 had consisted of only 15 total teams and had been played without the support of the USSRA (which in the interim had been renamed U. S. Squash), Stephens said about the 2015 edition, “It’s amazing. Fourteen hundred players, 144 teams. All of the matches. All of the clubs. All of the schools that have rebuilt their courts from hardball to softball. The game is very healthy and growing. Now you’re seeing players from all over the world coming here to play and coach. It’s a very good omen to the future of U. S. squash. For Brunswick, we have 70 kids in the program, which is about all we can handle, but it continues to grow. I have 3rd and 4th graders playing. Some of them were here today, and they see our varsity win, and that makes an impact on them, so they want to be part of it one day, and hopefully they will keep going.” Brunswick and the Patterson Cup champion Baldwin School, another first-time winner, were two of 11 champions crowned that day, since multiple competitive categories had been established in both the boys and girls divisions.

    The only aspect of this otherwise glorious day in Brunswick squash history that did not go according to plan happened when the bus that was to take the team back to Greenwich broke down under an overpass located less than a quarter-mile from the hotel where the team had stayed. Everyone had to carry their luggage back to the hotel through what was fast becoming a driving snowstorm. Many of the team members were then transported back home either by their parents (a number of whom had attended the final) or after contacting Uber. But there wasn’t enough room in those vehicles for everyone, and Boynton stayed behind along with Patrick Feeley, the Varsity B No. 1 player, and a few others. They were stuck at the hotel until very late that night before eventually being picked up and driven home by Steve Polikoff, the longtime coach of the Middle School squash team. Polikoff, who had helped coach the JV team that morning, was more than halfway home when his son called to inform him of the bus breakdown. By the time he returned to Hartford, picked up the remaining Brunswick people and arrived back in Greenwich, it was well after midnight, a late and snowy ending to what was nevertheless a historic day in the annals of Brunswick squash. Within a few weeks after that night, Hindy and Odrich had designed long-sleeved shirts proclaiming “Brunswick 2015 National Champions” that were distributed to everyone on the Varsity A squad.