The last time men’s squash won the Ivy League title outright, Neil Armstrong was taking his first steps on the moon and the Beatles had just finished recording Abbey Road. Over 53 years in the making, the No. 1 men’s team in the nation added another notch on its belt, storming to the title last Sunday with a win over Cornell.
“There are no words that can describe this feeling. It still feels unreal and like a dream. After closing the Ivy League title against Cornell, it was an emotional roller coaster,” graduate student Yash Bhargava said. “I felt relieved that all of our hard work, dedication, and commitment finally paid off. [I] felt proud of my team for how we have carried ourselves throughout the season and stuck with each other.”
Beyond the players, this title holds such significance to the coaching staff. For head coach Gilly Lane, an alumnus of the team, having played from 2003 to 2007, this victory was fulfilling not just his aspirations as a coach, but also as an athlete.
“As someone who played, we never got close to a title so for me this is very special. I just feel blessed to be around this group of student athletes,” Lane said.
While at the end of the season, a clean sheet without a single loss paints a pretty picture, the team did not get here without some challenges.
“The hardest challenge I faced this season was the match against Princeton," Bhargava said. "We did not want to lose against them because we would have had to share the Ivy League title with Harvard, which none of us wanted. We also had one of our top three players out, so we knew that it would be a challenge to beat them on their home courts."
After going down 2-0 in the first shift, the courts were hotter than usual, and some Quakers began cramping and started to lose games.
“I could only think of how hard the team has worked and all the sacrifices made this year to be where we are right now, Bhargava said. "Sometimes when your game is not at 100%, you want to push through for your teammates, and that’s what I did."
The team rallied back from both physical and mental obstacles to prevail in that matchup, maintaining its perfect streak.
Another challenge that the team faced was the pandemic. Due to restrictions, many players could not gain access to courts during the time that classes were online. For many, preseason training was the first time they had played in months, and it took some adjusting to get into the rhythm again.
Lane credited the seniors and captains for leading the way, with their experience of falling just short of the title in 2020 motivating them to do better.
“Andrew, Aly and James are gonna go down as three of the best players to ever play at the school and Yash is going to go down as the all time leader in individual wins in program wins," Lane said. “When you have four guys like that, everyone just rallies around them.”
Senior Aly Abou Eleinen drew on his past experience in order to grow and push the team to improve on last year’s runner-up position.
“Last season we finished second in the Ivy League and lost in the finals of the national championship. This year, all of our eyes are focused on winning both the Ivy League and the National Championship,” Eleinen said. “As a senior, it's my job along with the other seniors to help lead this team into achieving our goals. We use what we have learned from our experiences in the last 3 years to help the younger guys reach their potential and achieve their goals.”
While this achievement is a milestone in the history of Penn squash, the team is hungry for more, with its eyes set on the CSA championships. Last year, it lost in the finals to Harvard, the 2020 Ivy League champions, on its home courts. This year, the roles are reversed as the championship will be held at Penn, and the Quakers being crowned Ivy League champions.
“We understand that we are the No. 1 team in the country and we know we are going to get everyone's best shot, but we are prepared for that challenge," junior Dillon Huang said. "Everyone on the team is extremely excited to showcase the hard work that we have put in the whole season."
The women’s team ended the Ivy League season strong, with a win over Cornell. Having suffered a string of losses, the last being to No. 3 Princeton, this win was the boost the Quakers needed going into CSA championships.
“We have been talking about this Cornell match since we’ve been back from winter break, knowing that this was the one match we needed to win to make it into the top division of nationals,” junior Ashley Manning said.
Looking at CSA championships, she is optimistic about their chances to fight their way up, confident the team will give it their all.
“The past few years we have gone into nationals with a higher ranking, but have ended in the last position," Manning said. "This year, we are going in as last, and I know that everyone on the team could not be more excited to do our best and exceed our ranking. We currently have our heads held high, we are closer than ever, and training harder than ever before! We honestly can’t wait to see what we can do."