With No. 2 Penn women’s squash facing No. 1 Harvard in the Collegiate Squash Association national championship for the second straight season after losing a brutal 5-4 decision a year ago, the narrative was almost writing itself: Heartbreak pushes team to success. Underdog upsets favorite. Former loser gets all-too-sweet revenge.
But unfortunately, in sports, the Hollywood story doesn’t always hold.
In what was nearly a carbon copy of the teams’ regular season matchup, the unbeaten Crimson squashed Penn’s upset bid early on in a dominant 7-2 victory. With the win, Harvard took its third straight title and sixth in the last eight years, while the Red and Blue came up agonizingly short for the second straight season.
“Look, second stinks. But I can assure you that it’s a lot better than third or fourth or fifth,” coach Jack Wyant said. “I’m immensely proud of the team; we fought hard today, we fought hard all season ... Harvard was the deserved winner today.”
After Harvard (15-0, 10-0 Ivy) topped Penn by an identical 7-2 score in the regular season, the Crimson got off to a similarly dominant start, going up 2-0 leading into a crazy showdown at No. 3 between Penn’s Marie Stephan and Harvard’s Kayley Leonard.
And while Stephan surged ahead to a 10-4 lead in the decisive fifth set, Leonard astonishingly ran off eight consecutive points to steal the match, putting Penn (13-2, 7-2) in a 3-0 deficit from which it could never emerge.
“It was as a killer one for us,” Wyant said. “We needed Marie’s match; we needed it for momentum, and it didn’t go our way, so it was excruciating.”
The Quakers could never recover. When Grace Van Arkel fell in three sets at No. 8 and Jess Davis lost in four at No. 5, the Crimson had clinched the national championship. For the year, Harvard won a ridiculous 128 of its 135 individual matches — with four of those seven losses coming against Penn.
“They’re loaded, they’re very, very strong at every position, so if they’re not the best [team ever], they’re among the best,” Wyant said. “I would argue that our team has gotta be a top-five best team of all time ... our timing just isn’t as good.”
Even with the final decision already decided, the Red and Blue wouldn’t lay down flat. At the No. 2 spot, undefeated Melissa Alves topped Harvard’s Gina Kennedy in straight sets to put Penn on the board.
Soon after, in the latest edition of women’s college squash’s unquestioned best individual rivalry — Reeham Salah and Sabrina Sohby — a packed audience was rowdy from start to finish, as Salah topped her longtime friend and foe in four sets.
With the wins, both Salah and Alves remained undefeated — and the former isn’t done yet, as both she and Stephan will compete at CSA Individuals next weekend.
“They’ve done everything that we asked and more,” Wyant said. “To be honest, I expected that both would finish the end of the season undefeated, but I’m really happy and proud of them.”
Despite the tough ending, the first two days of competition saw strong moments for the Quakers. In the quarterfinals vs. No. 7 Cornell (9-8, 4-5), Penn only dropped two total sets in an easy 9-0 victory.
Then, in the semifinals against No. 3 Trinity (16-3, 6-0 NESCAC), the Quakers went down 3-0 before pulling off one of the most epic comebacks in school history, winning five of the last six contests to squeeze out a crazy 5-4 win.
“The momentum was clearly going [Trinity’s] way, and we kind of halted them, started notching some wins,” Wyant said. “I hope when I’m really, really old and really, really gray, that I remember Saturday more than Sunday.”
Still, Penn ultimately came up short in its goal to break its 17-year title drought. The Quakers are now 0-4 against their chief rival over the past two seasons, while they’re 27-0 over the same period against all other squads.
And if one thought the best team rivalry in the sport was coming to an end any time soon, it’d be a foolish misconception. Harvard returns seven of its nine starters from Sunday’s title match. Penn returns six of its nine, including Salah, Alves and Stephan.
When asked if he thought the Quakers and Crimson would see each other in the same setting next February, Wyant gave one simple vow: