While Penn men’s basketball has gotten attention for its rigorous nonconference schedule, it has a long way to go before it can compete with the strength of the schedule facing the women’s squash program this season.
Currently seeded fifth in the nation, the Quakers will compete against all nine of the other top 10 teams, and every opponent on its schedule ranks in the top 20.
However, the eyes of the Quakers are fixed not on the top 10 teams behind them, but on the four teams that sit ahead of them in rankings — the group coach Jack Wyant refers to as the “Big Four” of women’s squash: Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Trinity.
All four of the Quakers’ losses last season came in matches against the so-called Big Four, though two of them were narrow 5-4 losses to Harvard and Yale.
So despite returning four All-Americans and eight of the team’s top nine players, the Red and Blue are considered underdogs in the national title hunt — a position relished by junior co-captain Nabilla Ariffin.
“The feeling of not being in the spotlight really helps,” Ariffin said. “We just want to go out there and surprise people.”
Last year, the team surprised Princeton with a 5-4 upset in Ivy League play, before later losing to the Tigers, 7-2, in the opening round of the Howe Cup, the national title tournament for squash. The rivalry’s intensity was further amplified by a close 5-4 loss to Princeton at this year’s preseason Ivy Scrimmages.
When Princeton comes to Ringe Courts on Saturday to open the season, the rivalry will weigh heavily on the minds of the Quakers. In fact, Wyant intentionally scheduled the match prior to winter break to keep the team motivated and focused during preseason training.
Wyant’s strategy seems to have worked, as co-captains Ariffin and Pia Trikha both expressed enthusiasm for another chance at Tiger blood.
“Everyone is pretty excited for a revenge match,” Trikha said.
The junior duo of Ariffin and Trikha represents two of the five juniors on the team who will lead the Quakers this year. The team has no seniors, so it must meet the challenge of filling the shoes of last year’s leader, Annie Madeira, who accumulated 55 wins during her Penn career.
“We miss [Madeira], but we have five juniors and they’ve all … stepped up to fill that void,” Wyant said.
Though the Quakers lost Madeira to graduation, they have also added a new face to the program in assistant coach Randy Lim. A 2011 graduate of Trinity College, Lim contributed to four undefeated seasons and four national titles at Trinity — a tradition of winning he now brings to the table for Penn.
Between Lim and assistant coach Amy Gross, the assistant coaching staff has powerfully impacted the women’s squash team this year, according to Wyant.
“The ideas used to come from me and the captains … and now they are coming from two highly qualified assistant coaches,” Wyant said.
Both Gross and Lim collaborate with Wyant in designing the team’s training regimen, in addition to providing individual attention to players. With seven national championships between them in their collegiate careers, Lim and Gross both bring an “expectation to win” that Wyant hopes will help propel the Quakers into Big Four territory.
“In the big moments, we’re going to have to believe in ourselves,” Wyant said. “If we do a little bit better job on that front … I have no doubt that we’re going to crack that top four.”