Excerpts from A Century of Champions: 100 Years of College Squash

2009 Potter Cup Final


A rematch between Princeton and Trinity in the 2009 Potter Cup final one week later was inevitable, and it took place on February 22nd, 11 years to the day after the Trinity men’s team had last lost a match when Harvard edged the Bantams 5-4 in the 1998 Potter Cup final. This 2009 editon of the National Team Championship turned out to be one of the most dramatic events ever held at Jadwin Gymnasium in any sport, and one of the two or three most memorable Potter Cup finals in the history of college squash. The Princeton crowd was so amped up that Trinity Coach Assaiante was roundly booed during the introductions, a situation he deftly defused with a response – “I haven’t been booed this much since I saw my ex-in-laws!” --- that cracked everybody up.

There were several reversed results from the dual meet eight days earlier, including in the first tier of matches, where No. 9 Peter Sopher, who had lost his dual-meet match 3-2 to Chris Binnie, out-dueled Rushabh Vora 3-1, marking the first time that Trinity had lost at No. 9 in its 13 consecutive years of Potter Cup finals. At No. 6 Hesham El Halaby duplicated his dual-meet win over Supreet Singh, this time in five games instead of three. Throughout much of the younger El Halaby’s praiseworthy Tiger career, many of the winners he hit during home matches, especially at key moments, would be celebrated with drawn-out calls of “Heeesh!” from the appreciative spectators, and this rallying cry was in full-throated throttle throughout his masterful performance in the fifth game. At No. 3 Callis, who had narrowly beaten Mathur in the dual meet, won the first game and was up 8-6 in the second, game-ball to go up two-love, but Mathur managed to salvage that game 10-8, benefiting from some late-game Callis tins. Callis then jumped way ahead in the third game, scoring many points with his straight drop-and-volley one-two combination. He won that game 9-0 to go up 2-1, putting Princeton just one game from exiting the opening tier of matches with a 3-0 advantage. But Callis had endured a brutal 100-minute match the day before in which he had rallied to win in five games against Rochester’s Hameed Ahmed, and he wilted under a revived Mathur’s onslaught in the final two games, both of which went to the Trinity captain 9-2.

In the second tier of matches, Trinity No. 8 Vikram Malhotra straight-gamed Imberton and Canner prevailed over Randy Lim, both repeat results from the dual meet. Detter had handily subdued Wong the last several times the pair had played, including by a 9-6, 4 and 4 score in the recent dual meet. But Princeton’s top players had a history of always playing better in rematches against opponents who had beaten them the first time, and in this instance, Wong followed Callahan’s instructions to slow down the pace, play long points and keep Detter from hyping up the play. Wong and Detter had a rivalry going back even before their college years that was rooted, at least in part, in the fact that Detter’s national coach in Sweden, John Milton, previously coached Wong at Wycliffe College, the prep school that Wong attended in England. Wong led 2-0, 4-1 and later 6-5, just three points from what would have been a crucial Princeton win. But Detter, who had proved himself to be a Tiger-killer three years earlier in his back-from-the-dead 2006 dual-meet win over Yasser El Halaby, inexorably wrested control of the play during the rest of that 9-6 game and throughout the 9-1, 9-3 fourth and fifth. Wong valiantly kept competing, even as his legs increasingly cramped up, but Detter plowed through to the tape to even the team score at three matches apiece. The Princeton coaches were moved almost to tears as they watched Wong try his hardest on an empty tank, extending the match for an additional 50 minutes on “nothing but pure guts,” according to Coach Pomphrey.

All three of the third-tier matches were resolved by a fifth game as the competition treacherously careened into a fifth and then a sixth and eventually even a seventh hour before an increasingly frenzied horde of onlookers shoehorned into every available crevice of Jadwin’s galleries. Indeed, the building’s fire-code limit was exceeded by an enormous margin that day and the C Level floor of the gymnasium was so crammed with spectators that the security staff was concerned that the entire floor might actually collapse. The Zanfrini fencing room near the galleries was set up with a video feed on the main gallery court, but even that room swiftly became filled to the brim.

Normally the matches are played on adjacent courts, but in this case there was an empty court in between so people could position themselves there and crane their necks to watch at least part of the courts to their left and/or right. Shannon and his long-time close friend and fellow Calgary native Letourneau went on at approximately the same time, in each case to face opponents with whom they had had close matches one week earlier. Shannon, as noted, had failed to make good on a two games to one advantage against Vargas in what was Shannon’s first varsity match in the six weeks since he had slipped in a heavy snowfall while coming down the steps outside his dorm and pulled a muscle in his back. He lost the first two games in his rematch with Vargas but then hit his stride, volleying with a degree of aggressiveness that pushed Vargas out of his comfort zone and out-scoring his opponent 27-9 over the final three games.

Leading four matches to three, Princeton needed just one more win from either Letourneau or Sanchez to capture the 2009 National Championship. Both came about as close as one can to delivering it. Letourneau, who had barely lost his dual-meet match, 10-8 in the fourth, to Parth Sharma, did a wonderful job of following the instructions he had received from the coaching staff to “close down the court” on Sharma by keeping the ball tight to the walls and using his power game to constrict the playing field and mitigate his foe’s fleetness afoot. This strategy enabled Letourneau to earn a 2-0, 7-2 lead, but Sharma staged a late somewhat desperate rally, aided by a few Letourneau tins when he tried to force winners, a task made more difficult by how hot the ball had become. Sharma made off with that game 9-7, whitewashed Letourneau in the fourth and grabbed a 3-0 led in the fifth --- 19 consecutive points, albeit with many hands-out. Letourneau courageously fought back and the game seesawed to 7-all, leading to the longest exchange of the match, what Assaiante later described as “a helter-skelter frenzy that was almost unbearable to watch.” Letourneau eventually tinned a drive to give Sharma the serve. On the ensuing two points, a Letourneau tin and a stroke call against him allowed Sharma to claim a 9-7 comeback win. Peter Sopher later remarked that Sharma’s intensity level throughout that fifth game was “like nothing I have ever seen.”


With the score now 4-all, the two best players in college squash, Sanchez and Chaudhry, battled intensely for the national team championship. Chaudhry went up two games to one, but Sanchez went from 5-2 to 9-2 in the fourth and then charged to 5-0 in the fifth, constituting a 9-0 run. After coaching Sanchez in the between-games break prior to the fifth game, Callahan spent the entire last game nervously pacing in the corridor just outside his office. He and Pomphrey were unable to watch due to the size of the crowds, but, that aside, Callahan was too nervous to bring himself to even try to watch. Pomphrey and some of the late-finishing players and Bob’s younger brother Brian were in Callahan’s office with the door open and Callahan pacing outside.

Several of the players had their noses pressed against the office window overlooking the court, and they reported the result of each rally to Pomphrey, who then relayed it to Callahan. Pomphrey’s summary of this situation was, “It seemed to go on forever, and it was excruciating. For sure Bob and I could have watched through the office window if we’d wanted to. We never spoke about it, but since we used to think alike, I’m sure he didn’t want to do it because (a) the last thing either of us wanted was for Mau to see us looking down from that window --- he had enough pressure to deal with as it was, and (b) this was a day for the guys on the team, whether top nine or JV, and we would be taking places away from them if we took their spots at the window.”

Sanchez was a terrific athlete --- once Princeton’s varsity track coach happened to see Sanchez running sprints and asked him to try out for the track team --- but was prone to hit occasional loose drives, which was the worst thing one could do against the 6’4” Chaudhry, who was expert at backing opponents out with his sizable body and then crushing the ball down the open wall. Later some of the Princeton players said that they felt the play was always on Chaudhry’s racquet, but that at 5-0, with Sanchez having the momentum and the score in his favor, they thought Sanchez was positioned to win. On the other hand, Trinity coach Assaiante, when asked by his assistant coach (and former star player) Reggie Schonborn if he felt that Chaudhry was going to win, responded, “I don’t know, but I can’t imagine him not doing so.” The expectations of others aside, Chaudhry answered the challenges and exigencies of the moment by imposing the full thrust of his fearsome arsenal when it was needed the most, surging through the next seven points, after which the score remained 7-5 for a number of hands-out. Chaudhry finally got to match ball on a wall-hugging drive and ripped a cross-court past Sanchez, whose last-ditch effort to flip the ball off the back wall plummeted to the floor well short of the front wall like a bird that had been shot through the heart. The outcome of the 2009 Potter Cup final brought the consecutive-matches-won total of the Trinity College men’s squash team to 202, breaking the record of 201 set by Yale’s men’s swimming team from 1940-61 and making the Trinity men’s squash team the winningest team in the history of college athletics.

In the post-match team gatering, Callahan implored his devastated players to understand that they were winners in his mind, that the fight itself does mean something, and that he had never seen a team fight harder than Princeton had that day. He later sounded a similar theme when he told Daily Princetonian reporter Zach Kwartler that he emphasized to his players “that champions are what’s on the inside, not just on the outside. Just because you don’t have the biggest piece of silver doesn’t mean you are not a champion.” Of the three seniors who had meant so much to Princeton squash throughout their careers Callahan said, “Not only are they special players, but they are special leaders and people. It will be very hard to come back next year without them. They will be sorely missed but never forgotten.”  Indeed the Three Amigos will be forever remembered in Princeton squash lore for leading Princeton men’s squash to its first-ever stretch of four consecutive Ivy League pennants and its first-ever stretch of four consecutive Potter Cup finals --- but they were never quite able to take that final step. That latter feat would be for another Princeton team to accomplish, not too far down the road.


When Chaudhry was asked years later to relive the fifth game of his match with Sanchez, he recalled, “I remember when I came off the court after losing the 4th game, nobody mentioned that the Team score was tied 4-4 and my match was the decider. However, at the start of the fifth game, most of my teammates were outside my court and they didn't seem super jubilant, so I figured I was probably playing the decider. And here I was 5-0 down in the fifth with the entire streak on the line. I tried to stay in the moment as Coach Paul always taught. I don't think I panicked at any point, I was just surprised how I was 5-0 down all of a sudden. From experience, I knew it was a matter of a rally or two to shift the momentum so my plan was simple: hang in, dig deep and play to my strengths which was tight, error-free squash. We also had the nine-point scoring system at that time, which helped. I was really lucky to make the comeback and clinch the fifth game and win the National Championship for my team. I remember all my teammates bursting onto the court hugging and lifting me. It was surreal with tears of joy here and there. Definitely one of the most cherished memories of my life. I think credit should also be given to the late Bob Callahan (always a big fan of his) and his team, who fought so hard with such grace.The pressure of playing for Trinity was immense. Every time we stepped on the court, we knew we were a hot target as everyone wanted to end the streak. You were not only representing yourself but also your brothers battling it out with you and the ones that came before. The last thing you wanted was to be the reason for that streak to end. It was a big motivator. ‘Not on my watch’ was our mantra.”

2003 Women's Ivy League Championship

The following 2002-03 season brought two of the long-time crown jewels of USSRA junior squash to Yale in Michelle Quibell and Amy Gross, each a winner of multiple U. S. Junior titles (Quibell had also annexed some Scottish and British Junior crowns) and teammates on the U.S. Junior squads in both 1999 and 2001, as well as Rachita Vora, a national junior team member for India, where her coach growing up was Rehmat Khan, who had been Jahangir Khan’s coach when the latter had his run of 10 straight British Open titles from 1982-91. All three promptly moved into the top tier of Yale’s ladder, with Quibell remaining at No. 1 throughout her sparkling four-year career, followed by Gross at No. 2, Ho at No. 3 and Vora at No. 4. They were all at a peak in the one-sided Howe Cup semis win over Harvard. Anything seemed possible coming into the Sunday summit with Trinity, but the powerful defending-champion Bantams were rested and ready to play their best squash, while the Elis, exhilarated but exhausted both physically and mentally by their semifinal win the previous evening, were unable to duplicate that performance and absorbed a 9-0 shut-out.

Trinity junior Pam Saunders set the tone immediately with a quick 9-4, 1 and 0 win over Yale No. 3 Frances Ho and the Bantams never looked back. In the last match of the day, Helal lost her first two games against Quibell. With the team outcome having long been settled, it would have been fully understandable if Helal had let that match go, and it is therefore a tribute to her competitive spirit that she instead rallied and won the last three games to complete the 9-0 shut-out.

That year, and for the final time, the Harvard-Yale dual meet occurred after the Howe Cup tournament, which meant that just four days after defeating the Crimson in New Haven, the Bulldogs had to travel to Cambridge to play Harvard again, this time with the 2003 Ivy League title hanging in the balance, since neither team had lost to an Ivy League opponent that winter.The Yale players, by contrast, had spent themselves by then and had to make do without the crowd energy that had spurred them on at the Brady Courts. In recalling their disappointing evening in Cambridge many years later, several Yale players noted that, even before the match began, “everything was different” from the way it had been when the two teams had met the prior weekend. The courts were different, not only geographically but also in how they played --- the Yale courts were active and lively, rewarding the deep game and long, attritional points, while the Murr Center courts were better suited to shot-making, and at Harvard a drive that caught a side wall would come much further out into the middle, making the stroker more vulnerable to having a let-point called against her.

The crowd allegiance, of course, was also different, and so, as noted, were the teams’ respective mind-sets in the wake of the Howe Cup result. This became even more the case when Harvard got off to an early lead by swiftly winning a few of the “evens” matches that had landed in Yale’s column a few days earlier, thereby increasing the pressure on the odd-numbered Yale players and making them realize that they had no margin for error and that they had to win their matches for Yale to gain possession of the Ivy League crown, which it had last won 17 years earlier in 1986. The Yale team, though highly talented, was also still very young, with three freshmen and one sophomore filling the top four slots, and the magnitude of the moment bore heavily down on them.


As if the prospect of winning another Ivy League title and avenging a recent one-sided defeat wasn’t enough motivation, the Harvard women’s team was unintentionally supplied a further spur shortly prior to the beginning of the match by the mother of one of the Yale players, who in anticipation of what would have been Yale’s first Ivy League crown in nearly two decades, baked cupcakes which she brought to the arena. Each of them had white topping with a single blue letter, and when properly arranged the cupcakes’ letters spelled out “Yale Ivy League Champions.” One of the Harvard players happened to see the array of cupcakes and relayed the news to her teammates in the locker room, further charging the competitive atmosphere, which in any case by all accounts was nothing short of electric all night long.

Yale had a strong chance to win all the way till the end in a competition in which the lines between these two teams were starkly drawn. The Bulldogs swept the Nos. 3-6 spots without losing a single game, but Harvard sophomore Stephanie Hendricks repeated her Howe Cup win over Ruth Kelley at No. 9, and Wilkins roared out of the gate and never looked back in recording her first-ever victory over Gross. Both the Nos. 7 and 8 matches “flipped”, with Harvard’s Alison Fast reversing her recent loss to Dalzell (who afterwards said she felt like she “had lead in her sneakers that night”) and Crimson co-captain Ella Witcher doing the same against Doline. With the score thus knotted at four matches apiece, the Ivy League championship would be decided by the No. 1 match between Hall and Quibell, with both sets of parents present (the Quibells flew up from Atlanta and the Halls drove from suburban Philadelphia). The energy level in that Hall-Quibell match was extraordinary, both on court and in the gallery, as both players competed at their absolute limit, all the while demonstrating superb sportsmanship in a memorable exhibition of women’s college squash at its best.

After dropping the opening game in a tiebreaker, Hall surged through the second and third, but Quibell earned an 8-6 advantage in the fourth. However, Hall rallied to force the game into a tiebreaker. She was unable to convert her first match-ball at 9-8, but she got the serve back and made good on the second with a forehand working-boast from deep in the right part of the court that a diving Quibell failed to retrieve and tossed her racquet skyward in exasperation. In a post-match interview, Baj paid tribute to his star player when he asserted, “It was always in the cards that Hall was going to pull a big one out.” Jubilant at this victory, and the 10th Ivy League crown in 12 years for the Harvard women that it secured, the team then marked this milestone several hours later by “streaking” around a section of Harvard Yard late that night, as one team member put it, “in honor of Primal Scream, which none of us had participated in during January finals. Never a dull moment with the squash ladies!”

It was to be the last moment of unconstrained celebration for Hall and the Harvard women’s squash team for some time to come, as the following week Hall was decked with a bad enough case of the flu to keep her out of the Individuals at Trinity, where Helal, playing on her home courts, successfully defended her 2002 crown, beating Quibell in the semis and Reta in the final. None of Hall’s teammates were able to advance past the quarterfinals. By vote of the college coaches, that tournament was renamed the Ramsay Cup a few months earlier in deference to Gail Ramsay’s four-straight trumphs from 1977-80. Throughout the several years that followed, Yale, with Quibell, Gross, Frances Ho et al continuing to grow as players and a host of talented recruits joining them as well (especially Kat McLeod, a New Zealander, whose presence in the top three made the team even stronger), reigned supreme in Howe Cup competition. By the end of the 2003-04 season, the Yale contingent had become so deep and imposing that their captain Devon Dalzell, who had played in the top three her freshman year, was no longer even in the starting nine.