Streak Alive in 5-4 Win
BATTLES VALIANTLY TO THE BRINK OF VICTORY
February First, 2006. Six hundred fortunate Trinity students, Princeton students, and squash fans were witness Wednesday evening to one of the most closely fought, dramatic and competitive college squash matches in recent seasons. It began sharply at 5PM. The electric atmosphere and tension built rapidly. Long after 9:30 it concluded, with the most unlikely of endings. Princeton had come in and played their way to the verge of victory. To the very brink. To match-ball, in fact, with their ace serving in the box. Everyone in the building but Gustave Detter had conceded defeat. But Princeton just couldn't shut and lock the door.
With hundreds of frantic fans yelling, "Gustav, Gustav ... " , " ... we have Gustav. " Princeton's ace, and most probably the best college squash player ever in the US, Yasser El Halaby, stood two games- to love ahead of Trinity freshman Gustav Detter and 8-7 match ball. But he couldn't convert that final serve. And as the noise became more deafening, Yasser, who has scored many of his great wins on this court - some of them combeack wins - fell victim to a growing epidemic of tins. And as the Swedish flag was raised over the back of the court, with the fans chanting increasingly stridently, Detter's confidence grew, he seemed to grow stronger, and feed off of the moment and El Halaby's errors. The Swede eventually converted El Halaby's tentativeness into the most improbable of comebacks and into Trinity's most dramatic and unbelievable win out of their string of, now, 135 straight match wins.
As the lithe sandy-haired Swede powered his final, winning, drive past El Halaby, Fans poured into the court, surrounding Detter, who becomes an instant hero at Trinity, taking his place with Marcus Cowie, who led Trinity to its first title and the beginning of it's streak in 1999.
But really, the heroes of tonight's game are all eighteen competitors -the nine from each team - and the coaches, Bob Callahan of Princeton and Paul Assaiante of Trinity, who to a man staged a high-stakes contest with all of them demonstrating their games at the peak of performance, but also with honor, dignity and sporstmanship all around.
"We've seen a lot of very strange things happen on that glass court, in it's short history," coach Assaiante told SquashTalk, "But this is by far the strangest, most unlikely and most unbelievable I've seen."
IN A HOLE
The evening started out with Trinity in immediate difficulty.
Trinity had chosen to use the "three court system" for the match (In college competition the home team can choose betwee a five-court or three-court system). In this way, two additional matches would take place on the two all-glass courts, giving Trinity additional home court advantage. Trinity's glass courts are the only courts in US college squash which must use the white pro-competition ball instead of the normal black ball, and become lions pits when surrounded by throngs of enthusiastic spectators.
The three court setup put matches numbers nine, six, and three up first. This gave Trinity one point off the bat, as Trinity #6, Eduardo Pereira overpowered Princeton's Nate Beck. But Princeton's Tommy McKay at #9 raced past Trinity's Coly Smith and Princeton's Kimlee Wong at #3 defeated Jacques Swaenepoel.
The loss at the number nine position put Trinity coach Assaiante on edge immediately. He paced the courts. "We're losing at the positions we expect to be winning at," he said at that juncture. McKay, playing confident and error-free attacking squash was a particular surprise for Trinity. But also, Kimlee Wong, an untested quantity in the college squash cauldron had scored an impressive win over the intensely competitive and determined Swaenepoel.
Next up, at #8, Dent Wilkens, recently returned to the Princeton roster after a four semester leave, staked Trinity's Neil Robertson to a five-zero first game lead, but then completely took over, overwhelming Robertson, and giving Princeton a 3 match to 1 lead.
Things now were looking dire for the Bantams and their streak. Still to play were Princeton's fabulous top two - Senior Yasser El Halaby and freshman Maurizio Sanchez. But while Sanchez began his battle with Trinity's Shaun "Stones" Johnstone, the pendulum began to swing in the other matches on court.
"It was a strange evening," said coach Bob Callahan, "There were so many changes in momentum." That was, if anything, an understatement. The fortunes of the two teams shifted so many times during the evening it was hard to keep a grasp of what was happening. In matches #4 (Trinity's Yvain "Swiss" Badan against Princeton's Vincent Yu), Badan took an immediate advantage, though Yu battled back valiantly and quite effectively. But Badan's lead and momentum, coupled with the energy that the crowd contributed to Badan's motivation, brought Badan home over Yu.
In match #7, Princeton's Michael Gilman took a quick lead over Trinity newcomer, Manek Mathur, on a flurry of brilliant shotmaking. But Gilman's shotmaking turned errant, and some inexplicable shot selections lost him the lead and gave Mathur the confidence to force ahead for good.
With both Vora and Mathur scoring wins, the advantage had switched, with Trinity now leading four matches to three. With El Halaby a prohibitive favorite over freshman Detter, the crucial match clearly appeared to be the one before us, the boisterous battle betwen Johnstone and Sanchez.
AT #2: JOHNSTONE AND SANCHEZ
But, maybe overconfident, Sanchez let his instinctive game loose, taking the ball short throughout the second and third games. Taking it short against Johnstone isn't a good idea, and Johnstone chalked up point after point on the counter punch to Sanchez's short game.
The end of the third game was a rout for Johnstone and things looks grim for Princeton's upset hopes.
With maturity under pressure, Maurizio Sanchez reimposed his length and positional game, drew strength off of the cheers for his opponent, and slowly regained control of the match. As Sanchez reeled in Johstone, the final stage was set.
El Halaby came out shooting, came out firing. Detter didn't shrink from the challenge. Detter fought and battled and replied with drop to El Halaby's drop.
But El Halaby pulled ahead, won the first two games, and built a lead in the third. He stood at 7-5 in the third and then, at match ball, 8-7. At which juncture, the unbelieveable happened. Detter rose to the occasion. History wasn't made. The Trinity streak was secure. And the Princeton Tigers left town defeated but not beaten, with their heads held high.
And six hundred spectators walked out into the night, knowing that they had just witnessed the best of college squash - honed skills, athletic ability, and determined competition at its peak.
As Trinity heads this weekend to Harvard, and Princeton meets Yale, there is a lot of squash left to play this season. But the stage is possibly set for yet one more electric meeting between these teams, at the National championships, which this year happen on Princeton's home courts.
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