Growing up, every young athlete had a similar fantasy: play their favorite sport at a nationally ranked Division I college alongside their best friend. It seems impossible. And it must be, right?
Dana Santry and Nick Spizzirri, two sophomores on the men’s squash team, are doing just that.
The pair of native Connecticuters met when they were very young - in the same elementary school classroom in Greenwich, Conn., starting a friendship that has spanned over a decade.
Unlike the other kids in their school, they both became involved in squash at a very young age. Santry’s father started playing the sport after his college days, and with a squash facility nearby, he encouraged his children to start playing too. With his father and three older siblings encouraging him to play, Santry picked up the racquet from a very young age; he estimates that he was around four when he started playing.
“I’ve played ever since I can remember,” Santry said.
Santry then introduced Spizzirri and Spizzirri's brother Eliot to the game of squash. The trio started taking squash lessons together. Even though he was young when he started, Spizzirri fell in love immediately with squash. After he showed promise in the sport, he quit tennis – which he had been pursuing with Eliot, who now plays collegiately at the University of Texas – and pursued squash full-time.
As they started training together, they proved that iron really does sharpen iron.
When they were younger, Spizzirri regarded Santry as a much better player than him. This pushed Spizzirri to want to be better and match Santry’s level.
“That just pushed me because I always had a really competitive mindset. It pushed me to want to get to his level,” Spizzirri said. “Once we were really similar in level – tournament results and whatnot – it pushed us to achieve what the other one was achieving.”
Santry agreed that playing alongside someone of such a high caliber for so long really did make him a better squash player.
“Having a top talent like him to train with every day was a luxury which many guys that I know from the junior tour didn’t have," he said.
With their own competitive drives and a best friend pushing them to get better each match, Santry and Spizzirri won tournaments and gained numerous accolades. They proved themselves as some of the top squash players in the country. Santry reached No. 3 and Spizzirri reached No. 2 in the national rankings in the Under-19 bracket.
Outside of their individual success, the pair also achieved success as part of a team. For high school, they both attended Brunswick School in Connecticut together, where they contributed to the schools’ three-peat as national champions. They won the national championship in 2018, 2019, and 2020.
Their national championship their senior year was an incredibly special one. They had the extra pressure to perform well for their coach Jim Stephens, who had coached the Brunswick School’s squash team for 35 years and who was retiring at the end of their season.
Santry was the one who clinched the national championship for the team in his final match. Watching his best friend play such a pivotal role in winning their third national championship was surreal for Spizzirri.
“We all ran on and did a big celebration together,” Spizzirri said. “[It was] one of the coolest, most exhilarating moments in [our] lives.”
Another significant moment in their lives that they shared together was their trip to the Men’s World Junior Squash Championships in Malaysia when they were 17.
“That’s not a place I would have ever expected to go,” Santry said. “I would say it’s the coolest place I got to travel to. I got to see some of the national landmarks – some of the cooler tourist attractions. It was a great trip.”
They were two of six players competing for the U.S.
Santry had represented Team USA for squash in competitions before; he competed against Canada in the Battle of the Border and traveled to places like Germany and Amsterdam for previous tournaments. However, this tournament was on a much larger scale.
He watched the world championships in prior years and always wanted to be one of those players. And then, he got the chance.
“I watched that tournament every year for basically the entirety of my junior year,” Santry said when reminiscing on the experience. “[I] always dreamed of being one of those guys that got to compete against these other countries. There was just so many guys I looked up to who were in that spot before me. It just seemed surreal to me to be able to go out and compete for my country.”
Spizzirri’s time in Malaysia was eye-opening. It was his first time seeing squash played at such a wide scale internationally, and it really impacted how he saw his own squash career.
“To see that it’s not just me that’s playing at this level – it’s everyone around the world – opened my own eyes to a new mindset,” Spizzirri said. “Just because I was top in the U.S. doesn’t mean that I’m top in the world. Seeing all those top players made me want to achieve that global success rather than just that national success.”
They both represented Team USA well in the championships. Spizzirri defeated Nils Schwab of Germany and Gabe Yam of Australia in the first and second rounds, respectively, and Santry defeated Hamza Khan of Pakistan in the second round after a bye in the first round.
Ultimately, the pair faced off in the third round of the championships. In the end, Spizzirri beat Santry within three games, sending him to the fourth round of their section where he lost to Siow Yee Xian of Malaysia.
It was not the first time that the pair had faced off against each other. Spizzirri estimated they must have played each other 40 times. But each time, he says that there is a “bittersweet feeling” because he’s playing his best friend. He described that when they played in tournaments, sometimes it would be hard to know how to react because of how close he was to his opponent.
Spizzirri said that they have gotten more used to the matchup over the years, though.
“On the court, we weren’t friends, and then off the court right after, we’d fall back into the way we were,” he said.
Their friendship gave them a great foundation upon heading to Penn, albeit virtually, in the fall of 2020.
Despite their close connection, they each handled their recruitment process individually. While they both knew that Penn was on each other’s radar, they did not have specific intensions to attend the same university. They more so saw the outcome as a fortunate one.
They were both ecstatic though when they realized that they would attend the same university together.
“It was awesome. I was really excited to play another four years with him,” Santry said. “Definitely felt good going into a new school with someone who is basically a brother to me.”
Spizzirri shared similar sentiments.
“Very cool to go to school with your best friend and have that kind of person in your life right as when you get into college," he said.
They both savor the opportunity to be at the same university with one another. After years of bonding – both and on and off the squash courts – they have each stated they have come to see each other as brothers. And they each regard each other highly.
Santry finds Spizzirri as one of the most determined individuals he knows.
“I feel like in everything he does he really works hard and doesn’t really let anything get in his way," Santry said. "And I think that’s why he’s been able to be a successful squash player … I just think he’s an incredibly hard-worker in almost everything he does in his life.”
Similarly, Spizzirri regards Santry as his one of the smartest people he knows.
“He’s always been a really intelligent guy whether that be on the court – really smart squash player – or off the court. He’s really street smart and academically smart,” Spizzirri said.
He even noted how Santry would act as his math tutor – free of charge of course.
This pair has been through a lot, both as friends and squash players.
And now they face the next stage of their lives. As players on the No. 1 squash team in the nation, Santry and Spizzirri are beyond grateful and excited to compete at such a high level of competition. After losing a season to COVID-19, they, and the rest of the team, are looking to achieve Penn’s first squash national championship.
Winning that national championship seems impossible. But Santry and Spizzirri have achieved the seemingly impossible before.