If you have the best season in a program’s 87-year existence and no one even notices, did it really happen?
That’s what we’re at the Ringe Squash Courts to talk about.
After a midweek practice, we head to the coaches’ office as if BG Lemmon owns the place. Gilly Lane, the men’s squash coach, gives us the room with a warning — this story is only going to give Penn’s senior captain a bigger head than he already has. We’re about to find out if he’s right.
But Lemmon shouldn’t really even be here at all. He shouldn’t be breaking records at Penn. He belongs in Cambridge. At least, that was what the squash world thought his senior year of high school.
The child of not one, but two, Harvard squash captains, it was a foregone conclusion Lemmon would continue his career with the Crimson after graduating from the Haverford School in 2012. Harvard coach Mike Way had other plans.
Midway through the recruiting process, Way informed Lemmon that he wouldn’t be taking any American players for the Class of 2016. Simple enough. Lemmon was disappointed but shrugged it off — until two weeks later when Way recruited an American. Fortunately for the Main Liner, he only had to wait four more weeks to let off some steam.
Competing at the U.S. Junior Open, he got the chance to take on the very kid Harvard had just recruited. Conveniently, the tournament was in Cambridge, with the Crimson’s coaches looking on. He got the biggest win of his life to that point, but it came with a catch.
“Talk about me being conceited,” he joked. “I was sweating and I needed to change my shirt for the last game and I picked it up and it was a shirt that said ‘I’m kind of a big deal’ on it from ‘Anchorman.’
“So I had this huge moral dilemma in the middle of the biggest match of my career — do I wear this shirt where I look like a douche bag or do I wear the same sweaty shirt? Obviously I can’t wear the sweaty shirt because it affects my play so I put on the shirt and I won the match in an ‘I’m kind of a big deal’ shirt. It was the highlight of my junior career.”
The win was nice, but it didn’t change the reality on the ground. The squash world is a small one — the assumption had been that he would follow his parents to Harvard. When that didn’t happen, he was left with few options.
Boston College was viable, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to play there. The program wasn’t a strong one, and he lacked the connection to the school he could have had elsewhere. Ultimately, it was a no-go.
Then there was the Naval Academy. Lemmon had some factors to weigh. On one hand, his favorite movie was “Top Gun.” He pictured himself a real-life version of Anthony Edwards’ Goose (likely ignoring Goose’s death midway through the film), heading to Annapolis to become a fighter pilot. On the other hand, he would be signing away 13 years of his life if he ended up going there.
When push came to shove, he decided he probably shouldn’t make that kind of decision because of a movie he liked. So the Naval Academy was out.
BG Lemmon isn’t the kind of guy to forget things. And it isn’t just that he holds onto these things internally. He reminds you of them. Constantly.
“He remembers every junior match he ever played in from when he was like 11 years old, and he knows the stats of everyone on the team — who they beat, who they lost to. ... No one really cares at all but him,” junior Hayes Murphy said. “So I think that’s something that he literally holds with him to this day as a 22-year-old senior. It’s pretty hilarious that he’s still just bitter what happened when he was 11 years old at juniors. I think it’s just something that should be noted.”
Perhaps it helped that Lemmon carried a chip on his shoulder from the time he joined the Haverford School’s team — and overheard a teammate talking to his coach and dismissing his potential to rise anywhere high on the ladder.
It’s about more than Harvard or Dartmouth or Haverford. It’s the ultimate combination of his own personality infused with those past rejections. Talking about it offers a rare moment of rawness that his normal lightheartedness tends to hide.
“Ever since then — I don’t know if it’s the competitive side of me — I just wanted to prove everyone wrong, say that I am worth something, that I didn’t deserve to be overlooked at the time.”
When he starts to talk about his biggest personal moments at Penn, it’s team successes he starts with. His answer is one a captain should give. But the more he goes on, the looser he gets. In the process, the real emotions break through.
His intensity can be good and bad. More than anything, it drove him in that Juniors match in Cambridge and it’s the reason why wins over Dartmouth and Harvard stand as some of his proudest personal accomplishments at Penn.
“BG’s a very confident person,” Lane added, trying to put a positive spin on his captain’s demeanor. “He’s confident in his ability, confident in his approach. Honestly he’s matured in such a great way over the four years. He adapted to new styles he wasn’t used to and learned how to play the game.”
In order to prove the coaches who didn’t recruit him wrong, Lemmon needed a new home. While he would eventually get to Penn, that destination would take time to find. So Lemmon did what most people would do in his position. He took a gap year to bartend professionally.
It didn’t go well.
After being fired for (unsuccessfully) trying to make a Cosmo (twice), Lemmon decided to retake the SAT and evaluate his options.
He knew Penn coach Jack Wyant from father-son tournaments both had competed in over the years, though they never had much of a relationship.
“I always wanted to get recruited by him, but Jack never said a word to me,” Lemmon recalled. “I always got so pissed off at him.”
“We just didn’t focus on him because at that time, we didn’t feel like his results were good enough for us to recruit him,” Wyant explained, adding that Lemmon’s ties to Harvard also played a role in not initially recruiting him.
Still, Lemmon decided to reach out. He sent over his stats and scores, and Wyant in turn asked him for his GPA and transcripts.
University City was a little close to home, though, and Lemmon was put off when Wyant went seven weeks without contacting him following their initial exchange.
“I’m sure it’s accurate, I find that student-athletes remember that period a lot more vividly than I do. ... I was recruiting for two teams, both male and female, and at that time I had a three-year-old, a one-year-old and another son on the way,” Wyant said. “I was busy, but that’s no excuse. The thing is, we were looking at lots of different players and it just took awhile to realize that BG was the right one for us.”
In the meantime, Princeton came calling. Lemmon made the trek to New Jersey to see what the Tigers had to offer. It was certainly a better program than Penn then — the Quakers hadn’t been able to beat them since 1974. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t stand it there.
Just a short time after his visit to Princeton, Wyant reached back out. He made Lemmon an offer. Naturally, having gone through everything he had to that point, Lemmon’s response was to play hard to get.
“I hated my Princeton visit, actually,” he remembered. “But I was trying to rub it in his face, like ‘Oh, I had a great time, blah blah blah.’ ... Then one week later, I just committed.”
It wasn’t easy. It took longer than expected. And it was time for Lemmon to go to the next level.
After the winding road to Penn, it seems like enough of a story to make Lemmon’s journey worth a read. But things were just getting started.
Even ignoring some self-inflicted injuries — including an ill-fated attempt to dive into the water fountain outside of the School of Veterinary Medicine that briefly left him in a neck brace freshman year — and an inexplicable array of health crises, the path to success wasn’t always straightforward.
There was still the on-court product that needed some work.
“I’m sort of a stickler for technique,” Wyant said. “And BG will be the first to tell you that his technique isn’t — classic, we’ll say. It’s sort of his own individual style.”
Competing largely at Nos. 6 and 7 on the ladder, Lemmon stumbled to an 8-7 record his freshman year. Still, Wyant started to realize the potential that was there. He had formerly played in a doubles league with Lemmon’s dad and had an idea of where things could go, but working with him for a year solidified it.
“Marwan [Mahmoud, the team’s No. 1] wouldn’t be as good as he is without good players to train with, and BG wouldn’t be as good as he is if he didn’t have guys in front of him putting him in the right position to be successful,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that I knew it in high school, I’d say that I knew freshman year that he could be clutch for us.”
His match-clinching win against Dartmouth was a personal high, but it was a visit from the Tigers that stands out.
Normally, teams show up to a match at least an hour early. On Jan. 27, 2014, Princeton showed up at Ringe just 20 minutes before the match. Even for a guy roundly mocked for holding grudges, Lemmon’s anger at the Tigers’ disrespect is palpable almost three years later. Princeton barely showed up; Penn was there to win.
The rookie did his part, emerging victorious in his match, 3-2, at the No. 6 spot thanks to a 17-15 win in the final game as the Quakers took down their rival for the first time in 40 years.
The win not only marked an immediate high water mark for Penn, it kickstarted a process that transformed a middling program in 2013 to the top tier by 2016.
“I came to Penn to play college squash at a top level, but I didn’t think of us getting to top five, top two last year,” he said. “But [Princeton] was definitely the first moment where I was like, ‘OK, we can do something here.’”
A significant portion of that journey has been the relationship between Lemmon and now-head coach Gilly Lane.
Lane, a three-time All-American for the Quakers from 2003-07, came back to Penn as a full-time assistant starting Lemmon’s freshman year. Following the conclusion of last season, he was promoted to head coach. Together, the two have overseen the revitalization of Penn squash.
“We’ve had an influx of talent the past three years that he’s been here, but the consistent factor has been BG Lemmon. ... He’s gone through the transformation from his freshman year to where we are now,” Lane noted. “We’ve gone from the hunted to the hunters and he’s gone from a very vocal freshman to a vocal but more mature leader.”
The discussion of Lane and Lemmon leads to an extended aside — driven by the coach’s request that Lemmon explain the boldest prediction he’s made at Penn.
Lane and Lemmon have gone through a lot together. They’ve accomplished more than they may have imagined, though an Ivy title has remained just out of reach. Lemmon, however, has yet to live up to a challenge he laid down all the way back in his freshman year.
“I was being a childish, stupid freshman talking smack,” he said. “Classic. And Gilly played me and beat me 11-1 or 11-2, and I was like, ‘Gilly, don’t you worry. By the end of my four years, I’m going to beat you. No problem. Five-game match, I will beat you. And he just starts laughing at me.
“Part of me is just like, yeah, it isn’t true, but I feel like I can get him some day. He’s old now, he’s getting married, he’s starting to get slow. I’ll get him.”
Eventually, Lemmon gets back to talking about his career. Sophomore year was a letdown. He went 6-10, 2-5 in Ivy play, and was left wondering if he’d even be seeing playing time as a junior. As added justification for his fear, Lemmon found himself hospitalized just before the school year started.
“I remember I got the tick bite right here because someone was making fun of my calves, and I was flexing and showing them my calf. And then I noticed there was a dot that wasn’t supposed to be there, and I ripped the tick off and the blood was flowing and I look at my friend and I’m like, ‘I’m going to get Lyme Disease.’ And five days later, I got diagnosed with Lyme Disease.”
There he was. Coming off a lackluster season. Coming out of the hospital. Needing a self-imposed dry semester to work his way back into form.
Against all odds, Lemmon had the run of his life. He opened 2015 with an eight-match winning streak and didn’t let up, finishing out with a 15-2 record including a 3-0 run at the CSA team national championships.
“I think of BG as being really really good when it matters most,” he added. “He’s had a few hiccups here and there squash-wise, but really he’s been fantastic for us and just competed his heart out. It’s been great for four years.”
In a career full of flashbulb moments and misadventures, last year was different. There wasn’t that one big win, the one particular match that stood out. Instead, this time, it was a culmination of an entire season’s work, an entire career’s experience.
“There were times where I was down and out and I didn’t think that all the work I was doing was going to be worth it. It was. It made me mentally stronger, which I think was a huge thing on the court. ... Putting in all that hard work set the foundation for what I was able to do junior year,” he said.
It was the best season in program history. Too bad no one noticed until more than a month later.
A few weeks after the season ended, a Penn Athletics staffer realized Lemmon’s performance was the best ever. By then, it was news too far removed to even cover. It’s a story eight months in the making, and when it comes time to interview Lemmon, he’s on top of the world.
Which brings us back to the coaches office at Ringe Courts, where Lemmon finally has the chance to talk about last season.
“All the hard work I put into changing my game — with Gilly and shortening my swing, changing what I put in my body, how I prepare, what music I listen to — those little things added up at the end of the year. I’m a little pissed off I wasn’t 17-0, honestly.”
Occasionally, he slips back into his captain’s mentality. After the interview, he makes sure to text me that his teammates need some love, explaining he’d “be nothing if they weren’t all significantly better than I am.”
His follow-up underscores something too easy to forget: Lemmon is a leader. His coaches and teammates are quick to jab at him even though they respect him — because they know he’ll take it. Three years of him being around have taught them that, if nothing else.
Now he’s back. Lemmon has one more season, serving as the team’s sixth solo captain in the last 30 years. He’s got a shot to break the record again.
And this time, finally, people are watching.