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Penn men's squash coach Gilly Lane has struggled navigating the pandemic like everyone else, but he remains confident that the Quakers will be ready to perform at a high level when regular play resumes.

Credit: File Photo

In the seven months since Penn men’s and women’s squash last stepped on to a competitive court, the players have been relying on strong team bonds to adjust to uncertain circumstances and also motivate themselves and each other beyond expectations.

Just one out of several challenges the teams must face is the thousands of miles separating the players who are at home or have returned to Philadelphia.

Penn squash features one of the most internationally diverse rosters at Penn, which presents a challenging time zone difference spanning almost 12 hours. Players living in Canada, Egypt, and India are tasked with balancing unusual class schedules while also staying fit and keeping up with the team.

Undeterred by such setbacks, the teams have been assiduous in adapting. The virtual environment has proven useful in maintaining their social connections online.

One common denominator between the men’s and women’s teams is the strong camaraderie and friendship between the players.

“The biggest thing that I love about our group is that they’re so tight," men's coach Gilly Lane said. "They are constantly in communication with each other, not just because they’re teammates but because they’re best friends, and that makes me the happiest coach in the world.”

As both teams place great significance on the importance of mental well-being, players have been in frequent contact with each other individually and safely, whether through FaceTime calls, scheduling outdoor dinners with teammates living on campus, or planning outdoor runs.

Women’s senior captains Julia Buchholz and Nicole Windreich have been proactive in their roles as leaders since the summer and have continued to foster close bonds within the team. They arranged workouts over Zoom to connect with teammates Navmi Sharma and Yoshna Singh at home in India, waking up at 6:30 a.m. to accommodate the nine-hour time difference.

“Being able to work out with each other, see each other’s faces two, three times a week, even if it is just for an hour a day, it was something I thought was really powerful for all of us to stay connected,” Buchholz reflected.

The incoming freshmen also had their first introductions with the teams earlier than usual. After the freshmen received clearance from NCAA Compliance in the spring, the team began Zoom calls to develop the strong relationship between the newcomers and upperclassmen.

The freshmen were able to find reliable mentors in the team to help with matters outside of squash, such as planning class schedules and preparing for the level of academic rigor expected of a Penn student.

Lane, who has been central in leading the men's team since becoming head coach in 2016, credits the returning players for their leadership and reliability. Men’s squash was awarded the Sloane Award for sportsmanship last season, and the team, especially senior captains Andrew Douglas and Yash Bhargava, have demonstrated character to prove the accolade well deserved.

“This is a group that we don’t need to push," Lane said. "We don’t have to remind them of what we’ve done in the past and what’s at stake in the future … and they truly are student-athletes; they’ve done very well in classes and continue to perform on the court as well.”

Lane remains optimistic on the eventual return of squash to continue writing the next chapters of his team's historical run.

“I know the boys are looking forward to playing in front of large crowds and representing the school on a national level," Lane said. "I can tell you right now I miss being around them on a daily basis.”

The Quakers ended the last season on a high note, ranking second in the nation behind Harvard, but Lane also feels hopeful about the future of the team, especially the incoming freshmen.

“We think it’s one of the best classes we’ve brought in in the history of the program," he said.

While squash showcases the brilliance of athletes as individuals, Penn men’s and women’s squash continues to depend on an air of togetherness that is important for any team sport.

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