January 14, 2017. Head coach of Penn women’s squash Jack Wyant may not personally have the date circled on his calendar, but the eyes of the college squash community will undoubtedly be on Philadelphia as Harvard heads to Ringe for a rematch of last year’s national championship match.
But before either team makes it to that January matchup, they’ll have to battle through the brunt of their non-conference slate if they want to retain their spots at the top of the CSA rankings. With the teams below them quickly improving, both teams must be wary lest they fall prey to the parity that has ravaged the men’s side of the game.
“Everyone’s improved,” Wyant said. “We’ve been at or near the top for a while so our focus is more on working hard and the fundamentals at this point in the season.”
Key to reversing the result of last year’s heart-breaking loss to the Crimson will be three players at the top of the ladder. Sophomore No. 1 Reeham Salah nabbed a huge victory at this weekend’s Ivy scrimmages by defeating Harvard No. 1 Sabrina Sobhy, the woman who beat Salah in the deciding match of the Howe Cup finals to win the national title. Combine that win with her experience playing in the qualifying rounds of the U.S. Open, and “The Hammer” could be in store for another breakthrough this season with the Red and Blue.
Juniors Marie Stephan and Melissa Alves will also be important pieces in the Quakers’ quest for their second Howe Cup championship. Alves missed the majority of the 2015-16 season after going down with an early injury, but after having the time to recover, the co-captain could be just what the Red and Blue need to replace the hole that Yan Xin Tan left with her graduation last year.
For her part, Stephan will look to pick up right where she left off last season. After going 16-0 in team play last season, if the junior can stay undefeated for yet another year, Penn will have at least one victory in the bag before each match.
On the men’s side, the narrative for No. 6 Penn will be focused on fighting off the teams under them in the rankings. The past few years have opened up a level of parity never seen before in college squash. Rankings were thrown out the window as upsets reigned supreme last season. Since the Quakers found themselves both benefactors and victims of the parity, they should be prepared to deal with the sport’s changing landscape.
The Red and Blue went through their fair share of change during the offseason with the promotion of Gilly Lane to head coach of the men’s team. Despite the change in leadership, the roster remains relatively unchanged since Tyler Odell was the sole loss from last year’s top-nine ladder, and the team remains confident in their chances to sustain their run of Potter Cup success.
“There are so many good teams this year in college squash,” Wyant said. ”If we keep thinking about last year, we can slip up.”
After matching their best result since 2007 with a top-five finish, the Quakers will need contributions from top to bottom if they want to remain in the top eight at year’s end. Senior B.G. Lemmon, the first solo men’s captain in almost ten years, set a school record for wins last year and should continue to be a key cog at the bottom of the ladder.
The youth that drove this team to new heights over the past few years will now be traded in for experience as the sophomores who spent their entire Penn careers at the top of the ladder become upperclassmen and look to use their experience to turn wins into losses.
Junior All-American Hayes Murphy already got a head start on the season, getting valuable experience playing against the Qatari No. 1 at the 2016 U.S. Open. Fellow junior All-American and No. 1 Marwan Mahmoud finished the season on a high note, clinching the 5-4 win in the consolation semifinals with a thrilling five-game victory over Osama Khalifa, one of the premier talents in college squash. While Lane is happy to have the talent at both the top and bottom of the ladder, he made sure to stress the importance of every player on the ladder this upcoming season.
“We have a very deep roster this year,” the men’s coach added. “When you have six upperclassmen in the top nine, your team is loaded with veteran presence, which is something we haven’t had in the past few years.”
This past weekend’s Ivy scrimmages served as a sobering reminder of just how good the teams around them have gotten. With a fourth place finish, the Quakers find themselves already looking up at the Ivy contenders. If they want to finish the season on top, they’ll need the entire team to step up to the plate.