That seismic activity you’ve been feeling recently has been Penn squash leaving opponents shaking in their boots after the team’s wins.
In a way, you could thank coach Jack Wyant’s squad for the outbreak of parity that has left the College Squash Association rankings in tatters week after week. But if you wanted to figure out just how the team was able to make the historic turnaround, look no further than former Athletic Director Steve Bilsky.
“[Bilsky] saw something in me 12 years ago and felt I’d be a good fit here,” Wyant said. “My resume wasn’t the longest at the time so they took a real chance on me.”
Wyant didn’t have the same credentials as most squash coaches. Aside from a decorated career as a squash player at Princeton and as a professional, Wyant’s only other experience came from his time at Proctor & Gamble and coaching a high school team.
Bilsky took the chance on the Ohio native before the 2004-05 season to lead the women’s program into the upper echelon of squash. Success came early and often for Wyant and after eight years he was given the chance to lead the men’s team as well.
Wyant’s stint with the men’s team started well with a Hoehn Cup championship in his first season. Things started to slip after that season as the Red and Blue slid to a ranking of No. 14 heading into the 2013-14 season.
“Falling to 14 was the best thing we could have done,” Wyant added. “We sort of hit rock bottom as a program and the athletes realized that they needed to change their level of commitment.”
That’s when things started to look up for the Red and Blue.
Citing disorganization and a lack of focus as the reasons for their struggles, the team rallied around a trio of sophomores occupying the top three spots on the ladder and attempted to reverse their losing trend.
“We used the losses as motivation,” senior Augie Frank said. “[the coaches] were very excited to get going and it kind of snowballed with the rest of the team.”
It was a season for the ages as Penn squash rumbled to a top eight end-of-season ranking for the first time in five years. The next season saw the Quakers mostly tread water rankings-wise, but their biggest win of the season came at that season’s Potter Cup with their win over Franklin & Marshall that moved them up to a No. 7 ranking.
“Last year was the first year we became a skilled team,” Frank added. “All of a sudden we were a team that could play with the best teams.”
Jumping six spots in one year was unheard of before Wyant’s program introduced a new era of parity to college squash. In a way, the 2013-14 season was just a warning — this past season the team pulled off one of the most impressive jumps in history.
Sitting at No. 7 coming into the season, Penn breezed through its early season competition before hitting its home opening weekend against then-No. 2 St. Lawrence and third-ranked Rochester. With respective 6-3 and 5-4 victories, Penn squash pulled off yet another five-spot jump in the next rankings to a season-high No. 2.
“We know we can compete with the best teams in the country now,” sophomore Hayes Murphy said. “We’ve been working really hard and knew eventually it would click.”
Other teams across the nation have taken and notice of this success and tried to mimic their rise. Schools such as Drexel and Bates have put a considerable focus on building their teams into contenders, and already elite teams such as Rochester and Trinity have used their resources to bring some of the brightest minds in squash to their coaching staffs.
While the Quakers move closer and closer to a potential first-ever Potter Cup championship, there is an invisible hand behind them pushing the team forward. Penn Athletics has shown their commitment to Wyant’s abilities from the beginning, from staying patient through the team’s struggles to allotting any resources necessary to even offering bi-weekly yoga.
“It’s not just me who wants to win,” Wyant said. “I feel like I have a large team behind me providing support.”
This year’s Potter Cup fields one of the most competitive draws in the history of college squash. While Penn squash may not have the championship pedigree of some of their opponents like Harvard or Trinity, the Quakers’ coaching staff has put the team in a great position to add another superlative to their 127-year history.
“I’m not in this business to do anything but try to win,” Wyant said. “We think at the very least our teams should be as good as our university.”
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