Although the temperature may be dropping, it's heating up at the Ringe Squash Courts to kick off 2018. Led by a gutsy three-set comeback by freshman Andrew Douglas in the final match of the night, Penn men’s squash pulled out a 5-4 nail-biter over Rochester on Wednesday, ringing in the new year emphatically and ushering in an action-packed weekend for both Red and Blue squads.
In what can only be described as an emotional roller coaster, No. 5 Penn (6-1) dug deep and grinded out a thrilling victory over visiting powerhouse No. 6 Rochester (1-1), whom the hosts fell to twice last season. Thanks to decisive three-game victories from freshman Yash Bhargava, junior Max Reed, and senior James Watson, the Quakers put themselves in prime position to close things out early.
The Yellow Jackets, however, had other ideas. Despite picking up the first game, senior Hayes Murphy dropped the next two in the No. 2 spot, giving Rochester a foothold in the competition. However, he fought back courageously to force a decisive fifth set, where he walked away triumphant at 11-9.
Needing only one more victory to take the day, the Red and Blue were inching toward the finish line when disaster struck. After taking the first two games, senior Marwan Mahmoud was unsuccessful in the subsequent three, and, likewise, junior Karim Hussein fell in a gritty five-gamer. With things knotted up at 4-4 and adrenaline running high, only each team's No. 1 player remained to claim the day.
On center court, the crowds gathered to witness the final battle between the rival freshmen — Penn’s Douglas and Rochester’s Ashley Davies. Despite having only dropped one game thus far this season, Douglas found himself in a 2-0 hole with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
In what will be considered an all-time great comeback, he did the impossible. After winning the fourth game, 11-8, Douglas went down 10-7 in the fifth — but staring down the barrel of a triple match point unfazed, he sent the fans into pandemonium as he stroked a final rail to seal it at 13-11.
Reflecting on his performance, Douglas noted that the mental battle can be just as exhausting as the physical one, especially at the top of the ladder.
“The first two games were really not good. It was the hardest match for me so far, and I was feeling a little under the weather,” he said. “But after the second game I came out thinking ‘It’s one match, I need to push as hard as I can and find some way to win.’ It wasn’t pretty and I’m not happy with the way I played, but I’m happy with the way I stuck with it and found a way to win.”
Calling the affair one of the craziest matches he’s ever been a part of, men’s coach Gilly Lane praised his squad’s efforts and intensity when it mattered most.
“This win is a testament to how they work. Hayes is one of the hardest workers on the team, and he deserves to win matches like that. Andrew, as a freshman, was playing against a 23-year-old who was just starting at Rochester and a former professional player. The heart he displayed is what this team is all about,” Lane said. “It was a true team win today; the guys who won picked up those who didn’t, and I know those guys who lost close matches are going to come out on Saturday in good form.”
Having come back early from break to train solely for this massive showdown, Murphy credited the Quakers' workout regimen for securing the big points even when fatigue kicked in.
“We have great team camaraderie, and put in a bunch of tough sessions, which helped us today for sure," he said. "In the fifth game, a lot of times both guys are so tired it comes down to the mental side, and that’s where our tough training over break pays off."
After rushing the court to mob its hero, the men’s team will be back to work tomorrow in preparation for a kick-off Ivy League doubleheader, hosting both Brown and Yale this weekend. To this end, Lane added that, “It does come in quick but I think the boys are ready. This is why they train — to play three matches in five days.”
The women’s team, who cheered on Douglas to victory, will also be taking to the courts Saturday and Sunday to kick off its league play when the Bears and Bulldogs come to town. When facing the latter earlier this year, Penn just edged ahead to take the match at 5-4, which it will look to improve upon this outing.
Coach Jack Wyant kept his squad active once classes finished, including an action-packed trip to Canada, and feels the Quakers are now ready for this challenge ahead.
“The team had a lot of matches over the break, and I’m excited about a week of rest and a week of matches here in preparation for Yale. We’re as well-prepared for the weekend as we can be,” Wyant said.
With 2017 in the rearview mirror, Penn squash is looking to kick off the new year with a bang with a pair of crucial conference wins.