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Junior Anaka Alankamony is confident that Penn women's squash can win an NCAA title, but two historic powerhouses stand in the way as the Red and Blue try to prove they belong among the nation's elite programs. 

Credit: Alex Fisher

Looking at the rankings for men’s and women’s college squash tells two very different stories. On one side you see a constant reshuffling of the top teams as parity reigns. The other side shows just a few powerhouses maintaining a stranglehold on the top positions.

The latter scenario is indicative of the women’s side, where a triumvirate of sorts has formed at the top of the rankings between Harvard, Trinity and Penn.

It hasn’t always been this way. Until recently, the Quakers often found themselves on the outside looking in as other elite teams took home Ivy and national championships.

Penn coach Jack Wyant has seen the team through both sides of the coin. In his first few years as head coach of the women’s team, he often found himself on the opposite end of 9-0 score lines after going up against the top teams like the Crimson and Bantams.

“We were miles away,” Wyant said. “Despite us being ranked higher we weren’t in the same league.”

The tide started to turn as the Quakers started to bring in better and better recruiting classes. Having talent from top to bottom in all four classes helped Penn finally break through against the teams they were trying to emulate.

“I didn’t appreciate the talent gap until you actually see it,” Wyant added. “I tried to observe the players they had at each position so we knew where we needed to recruit.”

The 2007-08 season was the first time the Red and Blue reached became elite, capturing the Ivy title and advancing to the Howe Cup finals before falling to Princeton. The following seasons saw Penn fall behind Harvard and Trinity as the two teams traded off Howe Cup championships.

The past two seasons have given birth to a Philadelphia juggernaut as — outside of the matches against Harvard and Trinity — most of the matches have been 9-0 or 8-1 Penn wins. 

Last season’s Ivy championship for the Quakers remains a huge milestone for the team.

“[Last year’s 5-4 win over Harvard] was one of the best experiences I have had at Penn,” junior Anaka Alankamony said. “It increases our confidence and lets us know that we can win nationals.”

Despite their rise into the upper echelon of college squash, the coaching staff still looks to the more traditional powers to judge their progress.

“How we do against Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Trinity,” Wyant said, “is how we measure ourselves even today.”

The coaches have been quick to point out that the game is evolving. While the upsets may not flow as freely as they do on the men’s side, parity has begun to emerge in the women’s game. Schools such as Stanford were able to rocket up the rankings after beating Trinity earlier in the season.

Penn may have finally reached the pinnacle rankings-wise, but there’s a huge target on its back from teams hoping to upset the Quakers’ success. Their competitors aren’t just rolling over, so the Red and Blue have been forced to be wary of any potential opponents.

“I don’t care what team we play,” Alankamony said. “We don’t take any teams lightly.”

Heading into yet another Howe Cup tournament, the Quakers are coming in with a supreme abundance of confidence knowing that they will be one of the teams to beat rather than an outsider looking to beat others.

“I am happy that we’re finally in the mix,” Wyant said. “We’re a team that has endured difficulty, drama and injury this year and we’ve been successful”

The last two rounds of the tournament this weekend will be a matchup of goliaths trying to stake their claim as the best in squash for yet another year. This time, Penn hopes that they’ll be the one to finally wrest the crown away from Harvard or Trinity.

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