Excerpts from A History of Trinity Squash

I. The 2009 Potter cup final:

Sanchez was awarded Ivy League Player of the Year honors for the second straight year and Letourneau was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year. Notwithstanding this impressive array of postseason honors for various Tigers, the incessant losses to Trinity were getting frustrating, and the upcoming 2008-09 season represented the fourth and final chance for the Three Amigos to finally break through. They would be backed not only by a half-dozen returning starters but also by four strong freshmen in Kelly Shannon, a winner of multiple Canadian and American National Junior titles, American Junior team members Chris Callis and Clay Blackiston and Jesus Pena, a friend of Sanchez and Mexico’s second-ranked Junior.

This powerful contingent, the best Princeton team in the 15 years since the mid-1990’s switch from hardball to softball, entered its final dual meet of the regular season with Trinity at Jadwin Gymnasium having posted nothing but 9-0 scores other than the 7-2 win over Yale and having won the Ivy League pennant for the fourth year in a row and the seventh in the 10-year period from 2000-09. The Bantams, with a lineup of Chaudhry, Detter, Mathur, Sharma, Lim, Singh, Vargas, second-semester freshman Vikram Malhotra (the only player to have won the Indian Junior Championships at every age-group level) and sophomore Chris Binnie, had similarly dominated their opponents, but they fell behind 2-0 when Callis and Hesham El Halaby won the first two completed matches of the day over Mathur (10-9 in the fourth) and Singh respectively. Binnie prevented a Princeton sweep of the first tier of matches with a five-game win over Peter Sopher, following which both Detter (in his third consecutive 3-0 win over Wong dating back to the prior season) and  Malhotra (3-0 over Princeton No. 8 Imberton) won their matches, counter-balancing Canner’s 3-0 (two overtimes) win over Lim that leveled the team score at three matches apiece. In the final three-match wave, Sharma eked out a close (10-8 in the fourth) win over Letourneau, giving Trinity a 4-3 lead, but at the time that the Sharma-Letourneau match ended, Shannon was ahead of Vargas two games to one and had a 3-1 lead in the fourth game, while Sanchez was well on his way to building a two-games-to-love lead over Chaudhry. Sanchez would indeed wind up winning that match in five games, but by the time that match ended, Vargas had rallied to win his fourth and fifth games 9-5 and 9-3 against Shannon for Trinity’s fifth point.

The first sentence in the report that Princeton’s Athletic Department released about this dual meet --- “If these two teams should meet again for the national championship next week, it could be one of the most exciting days ever in college men's squash“ --- may have been the most prophetic statement that that Department ever issued.  The rematch eight days later --- on February 22nd, two days after Trinity’s milestone 200th straight win, 9-0 over Dartmouth in the opening round and 11 years to the day after Trinity last lost a match, also at Jadwin Gymnasium, when Harvard edged the Bantams 5-4 in the 1998 Potter Cup final --- represented 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. Throughout the intervening week, “you could have cut the tension with a knife,” according to Malhotra when he was asked years later what the practice sessions were like in the wake of such a narrow escape and the consequent team-wide anxiety about the likely looming rematch in the same arena where their streak had nearly capsized.

The Princeton crowd was so amped up that 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 recent dual meet, 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. Binnie had injured himself during the interceding week and Sopher, who later described himself as “more zoned in than I have ever been in my life,” rallied from 4-8 to 10-8 in the pivotal third game and maintained his momentum throughout the close-out 9-4 fourth.

At No. 6 Hesh 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 had 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 co-captain 9-2.

In the second tier of matches, Malhotra straight-gamed Imberton and Canner prevailed over Randy Lim, just as had happened in the dual meet. Detter had handily subdued Wong the last several times the pair had played, including a 9-6, 4 and 4 number in the recent dual meet.  But in this Potter Cup confrontation 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, had previously coached Wong at Wycliffe College, the prep school that Wong had attended in England.


Wong’s excellent application of Callahan’s strategy enabled him to win each of the first two games. Realizing from Detter’s body language and facial expression that he was demoralized, Coach Assaiante spoke forcefully to him, reminding him that his teammates Vargas and Sharma were expending every bit of their energy on the adjoining courts and, to quote what Assaiante said to Detter, “You can’t let them down. This is Heartbreak Hill. You have reached the 20-mile mark of the marathon. Guys who hit the wall, no matter how hard they have trained, they will accept quitting. Not with us. Not now. Not ever.” Galvanized by his coach’s passionate exhortations, and especially by his appeal to not let down his teammates Sharma and Vargas, Detter wiped out an early 4-1 deficit, won that game 9-6 and maintained control throughout the 9-1, 9-3 remainder of the match over his tiring foe.

Detter’s rallying win knotted the team score at three matches apiece, a totally different competitive scenario than if Wong had been able to convert his 2-0, 4-1 advantage. All three of the third-tier matches had to be resolved by a fifth game as the competition careened treacherously 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 the galleries. Indeed, the building’s fire-code limit was exceeded by an enormous margin that day and the C Level floor of Jadwin Gymnasium was so crammed with spectators that the security staff was concerned that the entire floor actually might 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 spectators 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 incurred a back injury. 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 Potter Cup. Both came 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. At that very perilous juncture, with both the consecutive-matches and the consecutive Potter Cups streaks just two points from ending, and with nothing he had tried having encountered any success, Sharma decided to do exactly what Letourneau had been doing to him, i.e. close down the court, keep Letourneau pinned deep --- where he could not use his excellent volleying and attacking skills --- and make it clear that, as Sharma later said, “He was going to have to beat me, since I was not going to give him anything.”

As Sharma steadily cut into Letourneau’s lead, his cumulative pressure, both offensive and defensive, forced the Princeton sophomore into some low-percentage shots, a few of which he tinned as part of Sharma’s game-saving 7-0 surge that created a degree of momentum and growing confidence that carried him right through the very brief 9-0 fourth game and to 3-0 in the fifth --- 19 consecutive points, an almost impossible-sounding figure, spread out over parts of three games. Although Letourneau at times appeared shell-shocked during that long scoring drought (especially throughout the fourth game), he fought back after falling behind early in the fifth and the game seesawed torturously to 7-all, with both players now at the top of their games. At that crossroads moment the longest exchange of the match was played, what Assaiante later described as “a helter-skelter frenzy that was almost unbearable to watch.” Letourneau was in control of virtually the entire point, but Sharma was so relentless in his retrieving (later saying that he covered more court in that point than in any point of his college career) that he finally forced Letourneau to tin a drive, thereby giving Sharma the serve. More importantly, by winning that point in the manner that he did, Sharma administered a psychological blow from which the mentally and physically drained Letourneau could not recover. In each of the match’s next --- and last --- two relatively brief points, Sharma hit backhands (a drive on the first point and a drop shot on the second) that clung too close to the left side wall for Letourneau to control. He hit a tin on the first point and hit an open ball back at himself for a stroke call on the next, enabling Sharma to claim a 9-7 comeback win about which Peter Sopher later remarked that Sharma’s intensity level throughout that fifth game --- and especially in that defining 7-all point --- “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 combined-games 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. Sanchez was a terrific athlete --- once the track coach happened to see Sanchez running sprints and asked him to try out for the track team --- but was prone to hit 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, the score, the home court and the recent dual-meet win in his favor, they thought Sanchez was positioned to win. On the other hand, Coach Assaiante, when asked by his assistant coach Reg 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 several tension minutes’ worth of hands-out. Chaudhry finally got to match ball on a wall-hugging drive and ripped a forehand 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. These same two players met in the final round of the Individuals at Williams College one week later and Chaudhry again won in five games.

Chaudhry’s Individuals semi had been over his freshman teammate Malhotra, whose path to that stage of the draw had been highlighted by his five-game round-of-16 win over Detter. It is a sign of how strong and deep the Bantam lineup was that Malhotra was able to defeat a player who was six spots ahead of him in the lineup --- and it is a compelling sign as well of the bond that existed within the Trinity team that, when the players shook hands after the final point, Detter was able to rise above the disappointment of having his college career end a few matches ahead of schedule by telling Malhotra how happy he was to be able to graduate with a clear conscience, secure in the knowledge that the perpetuation of the Trinity dynasty was in good hands with a player of Malhotra’s quality positioned to carry the tradition forward. Malhotra would wind up advancing to the semifinal round of the Individuals in each of the next three years as well, making him the only player in the history of Trinity men’s squash to get to at least the semis of the Individuals all four years.

When Chaudhry was asked years later to relive the fifth game of his 2009Potter Cup 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. Make Mauricio work really hard for each and every point. 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. By far the most relieved I have ever felt in my entire squash career. 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. The van ride back home to Trinity, I only remember that I slept on and off. I guess the weight of the entire world was finally off my shoulders. 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. Undefeated for 10+ years was unimaginable, and actually even a bit annoying. I was fortunate to have played squash at a high level before coming to College, winning the British U-19 being the hallmark of my career, but the pressure to represent Trinity was different. 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.”

The outcome of the 2009 Potter Cup final brought the consecutive-matches-won total 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 large part as a result of Trinity’s riveting win that day --- and the larger significance it had in terms of overall college athletics in the United States --- during the spring months Assaiante received Trinity’s Trustee Award for Excellence and the Senate of the United States, upon a motion filed by Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, voted on April 29th to recognize Trinity’s men’s team “for sustained excellence.” Rather than take any credit for himself, Coach Assaiante’s characteristic reaction upon being informed of this milestone was, “Thinking about 202 wins makes me think of all the outstanding young men who have been such a part of it for the past 11 yrs. Each and every one of them can be proud of this achievement.”

II The 2014 Howe Cup final:


The much-anticipated Harvard-Trinity final, featuring exactly the same lineups as the recent dual-meet tussle, was a true classic. The Bantams had exited New Haven after losing the 2013 Howe Cup final fully respecting the Harvard team that had beaten them but also displeased with themselves for showing up for that final both a little too happy with their semis win over Princeton and a little too ready to put Harvard on a pedestal, thereby underestimating their realistic chances of winning. Only when the final was over did they realize that they actually could have beaten Harvard if they had had the requisite self-belief from the start. The returnees from that 2013 team, four of whom --- Pelaez, her fellow co-captain Melva Lopez, Pelletier and Low --- were seniors in 2014, were determined not to repeat those mental mistakes, and the whole team received two additional boosts of adrenaline. One came at the Saturday-evening dinner when Pelaez, a beloved figure among her teammates, was presented with the coveted Betty Richey Trophy, and the other occurred shortly before the Sunday-afternoon final when Malhotra, a former four-time first-team All-American who himself had played on three Potter Cup champion teams, delivered a passionate pep talk that by all accounts amped the players up to a higher level.

After Coach Bartlett has first told them how much they had already accomplished through effort and sacrifice and how hard they had worked to get to where they were, she handed it over to Malhotra, who, speaking very directly and clearly from the heart, declared, “I know how much you want this. This is the only moment when you can do it. Your chance to do this is now – and right now!” There was so much intensity in his voice that he was actually perspiring quite heavily during his delivery. Tidman vividly remembers “how wowed up we were by what Vikram said and the way he said it. He spoke to us like we’ve never been spoken to before. I will always remember the feeling we had by the time he was finished speaking.” Taking a page out of Coach Assaiante’s playbook, Malhotra added that they were all playing not only for themselves but for the teammates who were playing on the courts next to them as well, and that they had a chance to achieve something that would be with them for the rest of their lives. The fact that Malhotra had so recently been “through the wars” himself as a player whose college career overlapped with that of several women’s team members gave him added stature and credibility --- indeed he had been on both the winning and losing end of riveting 5-4 Potter Cup finals right in Jadwin Gymnasium, having won a crucial match in 2009 against Princeton No. 8 Santiago Imberton and lost to Princeton No. 1 Todd Harrity in 2012, when the Tigers had ended the Trinity men’s 13-year run as national team champions.

 In many respects, Malhotra was still one of them and therefore could relate better than anyone else to what they were going through. “Knowing that Vikram had been where we were, and knowing as well that he was someone whom many of us had practiced alongside and even cheered him on just a few years earlier, was very inspirational,” Pelletier said years later when she was asked about his speech. Even though Harvard had only won the 2013 Howe Cup final by a 5-4 score, both Coach Bartlett and Malhotra felt during that final that Harvard’s team had a slight but definite edge on theirs and (as in fact happened) would assert that superiority in the end. This year had a different feel to it, especially since the lively Jadwin Gymnasium courts rewarded the stamina and retrieving skills that a number of the Trinity players possessed.

During the ensuing final, there were three flipped results from the dual meet, two of which were in Trinity’s favor, and the Nos. 5 though 8 matches (Tidman/Gemmell,  Babjukova/Chu, Balvani/McGowan and Pelletier/Dowling) all went to a fifth game, with Trinity winning three of them. Harvard got off to a 2-0 start off first-shift wins by Tutrone (reversing her dual-meet loss to Low) and Murray (repeating her dual-meet win over Erasmus), but the Bantams then won each of the next four completed matches. Babjukova, who had lost 3-0 to both Chu in the dual meet and to Penn’s Camille Lanier in the Howe Cup semifinal, this time beat Chu, 11-6 in the fifth (after losing the third and fourth games) to get Trinity on the scoreboard and thereby avoid a repeat of the 2013 Howe Cup final, when Harvard had recorded a 3-0 sweep of the opening shift and thereby put Trinity in too deep a hole to climb completely out of.

In the second shift, Dowling led Pelletier 2-1 after taking the third game 12-10, and Gemmell, who had beaten Tidman 3-0 in the dual meet, won each of the first two games in this rematch as well. But Pelletier, who had struggled in close matches during the early part of her college career, had become much better at handling the pressure by her senior season, and in this case she responded to the disappointing ending to her third game by soundly out-playing Dowling (11-4, 11-6) in the fourth and fifth, while Tidman, the hero of the semifinal win over Penn the day before, won the last three games of her match with Gemmell 11-7, 8 and 4. Although Chris Binnie was the men’s assistant coach that year, he was present at this Howe Cup final, and his advice to Tidman after the second game was simple: Just hit every ball as hard as you can and don’t make any errors. Tidman’s relentless application of this stratagem throughout the next three games caught Gemmell completely off guard and she never figured out a successful response to the increased pressure that Tidman applied.

By contrast, Pelletier, realizing that she had been a bit distracted by the pressure of knowing that she was expected to duplicate her dual-meet win over Dowling, as well as by the torrid environment around her --- sometimes checking the scoreboard of the adjoining courts to see how the other matches were going, reacting more to the crowd noise than she should have, etc. --- knew that the process of regaining her focus was one that she needed to go through by herself. Understanding that she had been too impatient --- and shot too soon --- in a number of the points that she had lost late in the third game, she visualized getting better and more consistent depth and remaining patient enough to impose her game gradually rather than rushing things. She had been one of Harvard Coach Mike Way’s large group of highly successful Canadian juniors ---indeed his first season at Harvard had coincided with Pelletier’s freshman year at Trinity --- and, although she admired Coach Way a great deal and appreciated what he had done to improve her game, their shared history paradoxically caused her to have a “refuse to lose” mentality whenever she played against his Harvard teams.

To Pelletier’s credit, she relentlessly and successfully executed her deep-court strategy throughout the fourth and fifth games, keeping Dowling pinned in the back and “hunting the volley” to maintain her court position and put Dowling under greater pressure. Pelletier was always well ahead in the 11-4 fourth game and she inexorably drew away during the last half of the fifth. At 10-6, match ball, having decided that she was not going to go for a winner or try any front-court shot, she continually pinned Dowling in the back until she eventually won the point when Dowling tinned a forehand drop shot.

This pair of comeback victories, along with Pelaez’s four-game win over Mendez --- thereby completing Pelaez’s perfect 15-0 season --- gave the Bantams a sweep of the second wave and a 4-2 overall lead. Even after Sobhy’s 3-0 win over El Defrawy, Trinity appeared to be home free when Balvani, who had lost her dual-meet match to MacGowan, took a 7-2 lead in the fifth game of their rematch. But MacGowan, showing remarkable poise for a freshman and completing an undefeated season in which on multiple occasions she had come through in crunch-time, did so on this day as well by conjuring up an amazing 9-2 closing run in the final exchange of which she hit a forehand cross-court that Balvani was unable to excavate from the back wall.


The one remaining match for the 2014 Howe Cup championship was between the No. 4 players Karki --- whose ankle, while still sore and stiff, had recovered enough overnight to be deemed playable --- and Kimberley, whose second-semester arrival meant that she had only been at Trinity for six weeks and, for better or worse, therefore  had no prior awareness of the intensity or background of the Harvard-Trinity rivalry, other than what she had picked up from her teammates during her brief time on campus. She had won in four games over Karki in the recent dual meet, but in this rematch Karki took the first game and came very close in the second, which she lost 11-9. Kimberley then won the third game 11-5 and led 8-4 in the fourth. Karki staged a late rally to 9-10, but the ensuing exchange ended when Karki tinned a backhand cross-court. Within a few seconds, Kimberley was mobbed near the front wall, first by El Defrawy --- who had jumped down from the gallery, representing a nearly 10-foot leap of faith --- and then by the rest of her delirious teammates, most of whom entered the court through the back door and several of whom also hoisted their Coach  Bartlett in midcourt.

Later a video was made of the matches and the celebration, and, even though it was only four minutes long, it fully and graphically encapsulated the tension, the incredible energy that was expended by everyone on both sides, both on the court and in the packed gallery --- “Believe me when I say that no group of people have ever cheered for anyone as passionately as we (our team and several Trinity men’s team members who had come to support us) cheered for Anna that day!” Balvani said afterwards --- and the outpouring of emotion and explosion of pure and total joy evinced by every member of the Trinity College women’s squash program after the final point had been played.  After the initial ecstacy of the moment had slightly abated, Malhotra, whose pre-match speech had launched the team forward a few hours earlier, again called the team into a huddle at midcourt and told them that this is what they had worked for and dreamt of, and that winning this championship would be with them all for the rest of their lives. “We were functioning at a very high level as a team by the time the tournament began,” he said afterwards. “But it was still a thrill to see everyone carry it through all the way across the finish line, and I just wanted to make sure that everyone understood the dimensions of what we as a team had accomplished and how precious a moment it was.”

At the trophy presentation, Coach Bartlett, at Melva Lopez’s generous suggestion, announced that the team was dedicating the championship to the memory of Michael Rothenberg, the father of Trinity freshman Brice Rothenberg and the President of the New York squash association for several years during the mid-1990’s, since the final was played on the two-year anniversary of his passing. Brice’s mother, Zerline Goodman, had spent her freshman year at Trinity in 1980-81 before transferring to Yale, and she was a frequent presence at Trinity dual meets throughout her daughter’s college career. Goodman was so moved by this gesture of support that she funded the creation of a poster that was a collage of action photos of all the team members, with a photo of the team in their moment of triumph right after the Howe Cup victory in the middle and the notation “From the Goodman Rothenberg Family” inscribed at the bottom.


It was the third time (also, as noted, in 2002 and 2003) that Trinity College had won the Howe Cup. No one could have known or would have suspected it at the time, but, as of this Autumn 2023 writing, it would also be the last time that any school other than Harvard would win the Howe Cup. Afterwards, a teary-eyed Bartlett, for whom this outcome represented the best imaginable way of marking her milestone 30th year as Trinity’s squash coach, called her team’s accomplishment “incredible,” and added, "It has been a long time, 11 years since we won this, but we knew this was going to be our year.  The girls worked very hard.  My heart and my stomach were up and down, up and down, but these girls wanted it.  They really did.  Anna is incredible.  She came in here as a first-year, went undefeated, and won the final match for a National Championship. Even though the final score of her last game was 11-9, the energy was so positive for Trinity at that stage that I always knew she would win that match.” Just as the 2002 Howe Cup marked a one-spot advance over nearly a half-decade from having placed fifth in 1998 to fourth in 1999 to third in 2000 to second in 2001 to first in 2002, similarly Trinity placed fourth in the 2011 Howe Cup, third in 2012 and second in 2013 before winning it all in 2014.

Kimberly herself was understandably thrilled at what she and her team had accomplished. She had been wavering between going to Trinity or Penn until she visited both campuses the previous autumn. She had such a wonderful experience in Hartford, and was welcomed with such enthusiasm and open arms when she met and played with members of the Trinity women’s squash team, that by the time the visit ended her mind was made up.  "When we won it, it was just a big release," she said.  "I knew she (Karki) was going be tough to beat.  She really stepped up today.  The whole Harvard team played us tough.  This is just the best feeling, such an amazing feeling." Babjukova’s thoughts were very much along the same lines. “This feels amazing,” she said. “It was our goal from the beginning of the year, so we are just the happiest people in the world right now.”

It was the second time in barely a month in which Kimberley had come through in a big match at a time late in a dual meet when the opposing team already had four points in the books --- in late January, when the Bantams had come storming back from 4-1 down to a 5-4 road win over Yale, Kimberley had contributed a four-game win over Norman-Ross to tie the overall score at 4-all ahead of El Defrawy’s four-game last-match-on-court win over Millie Tomlinson. Babjukova had also notched a close win (11-9 in the fifth) that day over Yale No. 6 Lilly Fast. Pelaez had overtaken Yale No. 2 Kimberley Hay after trailing two games to love to get the team comeback started, following which Balvani (a five-game winner over Yale No. 7 Gwen Tilghman), Kimberley and El Defrawy had swept the third wave. Several Trinity players pointed to that rallying win over the Elis as the moment when they first sensed that they might well be on their way to a championship season. The dual-meet loss to Harvard had been so closely-contested that they later said they knew they were capable of reversing enough of their losses to win a Howe Cup rematch. In this case, as noted, they flipped two of them, with Tidman and Babjukova, both of whom had lost 3-0 to Gemmell and Chu respectively, this time winning, in each case in five games, saving a combined five match games against them in the process. That was more than enough to counterbalance Tutrone reversing her dual-meet loss to Low.

Kimberley was featured in the “Faces In The Crowd” section of the next issue of Sports Illustrated as a result of her Howe Cup clinching win. Midway through their drive back to Hartford --- during which they erupted into a full-throated rendition of the famous hit song “We Are The Champions” by Queen, the British rock band --- the team stopped off at a food court, where the players all got a large paper “king crowns” at a Burger King which they wore on their heads throughout the remainder of the return trip to campus. Many of them had papers due the following day, so they tried, with varying degrees of success, to write those papers on the trip home, since they wanted to party once they returned to campus.

When the bus pulled into the area just outside the Ferris Athletic Center that evening, virtually every member of the Trinity men’s team, accompanied by nearly everyone associated with the squash program and many other supporters as well, were there to greet them. Coach Assaiante was at the forefront of the assembled multitude --- “He was as proud of us as he was of his own team,” Tidman recalled --- and he was the first person to congratulate them as they emerged from the bus. The 2013-14 season was a rare one during that time frame in which Trinity’s men’s team did not win the Potter Cup --- indeed it had lost 9-0 in the final to Harvard one week before the Howe Cup --- and several men’s team members thanked the women’s team for “having our back” by ensuring that Trinity College won at least one of that season’s national team squash championships.

At the Individuals one week later at Penn, El Defrawy, although pressed to a fifth game in her quarterfinal match with her teammate Pelaez, again reached the finals, where she lost to Sobhy in a rematch of the 2013 Individuals final. Both Trinity stars were first-team All-Americans, in Pelaez’s case for the fourth straight year, and Kimberley, in recognition of her having been the hero of the Howe Cup final, was named to the second team.


Coach Bartlett called the 2014 Howe Cup championship by far the most thrilling and fulfilling of the three that Trinity had won, noting that the two early-2000’s titles, especially the second one in 2003 (when the Bantams won all three Howe Cup rounds 9-0), were won by teams that were clearly superior to everyone else, whereas the 2013-14 Harvard lineup was so powerful that beating them required some over-achieving on the part of her players. Bartlett was especially proud of her players’ embrace of the leadership that co-captains Pelaez and Lopez had demonstrated in making their teammates more unified and, as she phrased it, “more willing to play for each other,” than any team she had coached to that point during her long career. She mentioned that there had been “a little bit of drama” early on, but Pelaez and Lopez called several players-only team meetings and were able to get everyone playing on the same page and supporting each other from that stage onwards.

Although Lopez was in the Nos. 11-13 range on the challenge ladder, she was one of the hardest workers on the entire roster and played a major role in helping create and perpetuate the bonded team chemistry that by all accounts contributed mightily to the championship run. Indeed, the team adopted the pop chart hit “We Are Family” by the four-person women’s singing group Sister Sledge, because, to quote Pelaez, “We really emphasized the team aspect and a team is like a family. We had to communicate well, support each other, be honest and fight for each other. If we wanted to be national champions, we needed the whole family on the same page.”  Even the preseason team runs around the football stadium’s quarter-mile track reflected this concept --- the team would run single-file, and at a certain interval whoever was last in line would run past the others to the first spot, with the team members in between monitoring their speed to make sure that this transition could occur,  in what amounted to a team-building exercise in which, as one player phrased it, “Everyone ‘took care’ of everyone else, while all of us were also getting in shape.”

Coach Bartlett herself had had plastic cups made on the side of which from top to bottom were the capital letters “T” (for “together”) “E” (for “everyone”) “A” (for “achieves”) and “M” (for “more”), and her team members fully bought into this mantra especially in the season’s last few weeks as everyone sensed the very real possibility of winning the national team championship. They peaked at exactly the right time --- and they caught a little magic at exactly the right time as well. Over the years, she had become better and better at handling the annual challenge of getting players from many different countries ---- in 2013-14, for example, her starting nine were from nine different countries and five different continents --- and cultures to become a unified team.

Making the task even more difficult was the fact that --- unlike in America, where most college players had previously been on their high school teams --- almost none of the international players had ever played on a team of any kind prior to arriving in Hartford, and as freshmen they therefore had no idea of a team’s hierarchy and were accustomed to playing an individual sport like squash only for themselves. Indeed, during this mid-twenty-teens time frame Hartford Courant reporter Lori Riley wrote a fairly lengthy article with the self-explanatory title “Top Squash Players Must Adapt To Team Concept” on exactly this topic.


The piece was essentially an extended interview with Coach Bartlett, who told Riley that, “My job as coach has been increasingly ‘Okay, we have these super-talented squash players, but they have to understand the whole team concept.’ Some don’t understand that you do what you have to do for the team, no matter how you feel about it. Why do they have to run hills with the rest of the team? It’s simply not part of their sports culture…I’ve had to kick off the team a couple of players who were prima donnas. Getting them to think of the team is still my main challenge. They can be very resistant freshman year, but once they go through it, they realize how much fun it is and how successful they are as a team.” Towards the end of the interview, Bartlett mentioned that she would be requiring her players to read “Boys In The Boat,” the book that had been written a few years earlier about the 1936 Olympic gold-medal rowing team from the University of Washington. “They have to understand that concept,” she told Riley. “No matter how much pain you are in or how tired you are, you can’t stop rowing. If one rower stops, the whole boat goes.” As it happens, one of Coach Bartlett’s starters, Chanel Erasmus, was on Trinity’s varsity rowing team, which may have given the coach a little extra insight into that sport. The multi-skilled Erasmus had also played varsity field hockey, did backstage work for the College’s spring dance concert, participated in several theater productions on campus and did volunteer work with Capitol Squash, mentoring Hartford inner-city youth in academics and squash.

Although adopting the team-concept mentality was new, and sometimes challenging, for almost every team member, in some cases it became one of the most appealing aspects of playing college squash. When asked years later to describe this phenomenon, Lopez observed, that thinking of the team first and foremost was “one of the crucial challenges for us as international players, but from my personal perspective it was also what made me fall in love with Trinity Squash. I had never in my life pushed myself as hard during practice both off and on court as I did when I understood that it was a collective effort. Not being a top-nine player never stopped me from giving my best and trying to have a positive effect on team dynamics. Cata and I were close friends since we were teens playing junior squash in Colombia, and we worked synergistically as captains to make sure we could be there for each and every single one of our teammates. We got rid of all the drama that had permeated the team years before and honestly focused on working hard while also making practice and everything enjoyable and demonstrating that it was possible to be excellent students, good friends and strong athletes. We even came up with silly games for warm-up, such as dance routines (even on match days where the other teams rolled their eyes watching us being silly). We fostered an environment that, while remaining competitive, was centered in our team as a family, where all voices mattered. We made sure we all knew how to cheer others in their native languages (i.e., the equivalent to saying “come on” or “let’s go” in Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, French, Czech, etc.). After coming in second in 2013, we really wanted to win and gradually built the confidence and the steady heart-mind connection to make it a reality. I remember feeling a lot of pressure our senior year when people would start to talk about us being strong enough candidates to win Nationals that year and rather than getting too excited about it, it kept us humble and hard-working.”

Lopez also mentioned that there was one crossroads situation that suddenly arose late in the season, when one player, an important member of the starting nine, called her aside to tell her that she was feeling too much pressure and wanted to quit the team --- this was at a point in the preparation for the Howe Cup in which everyone was expected to make a full commitment and be accountable to her teammates. “I had a one-on-one meeting with her and validated her feelings,” Lopez recalled.” I emphasized how important she was for us but at the same time told her that nobody was obligated to play, and that no matter her choice, I would be there for her. I told Cata about this conversation and we both sort of held our breaths and gave her the time to decide. We knew that it was important to be discreet and at that point it would be better if we handled it ourselves. That player kept training and didn’t mention it again. If she had decided to quit, we probably would not have won that year.”