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Hartford Squash Icon Paul Assaiante
May 7, 2009, by Rob Dinerman , SquashTalk.com , Independent
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(updated
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Trinity Coach Paul Assaiante Concludes Milestone Fifteenth Season At The Helm    
The Champs were in trouble, deep trouble, and everyone knew it. They were right on the precipice of being devoured by the snake-pit that Jadwin Gymnasium had become, down 5-love in the fifth game of the final and deciding match still on court in the final round of the Potter Cup (emblematic of the national intercollegiate team championship), with Princeton’s manic hometown gallery cheering Tiger No. 1 Mauricio Sanchez on to what loomed as an increasingly certain victory against a Trinity opponent, reigning Intercollegiate Individuals champ Baset Chaudhry, whom two-time Ivy League Player Of The Year Sanchez had defeated just eight days earlier in the same highly partisan venue. Trinity had survived – barely — that prior dual-meet encounter 5-4, thereby recording its 199th consecutive team victory and eluding what Trinity Head Coach Paul Assaiante had feared would be (his term) a “Valentine’s Day Massacre” in deference to the February 14th date. But now Chaudhry, who had led two games to one over Sanchez but then lost 14 of the 15 points that had subsequently been registered (1-9 in the fourth game, 0-5, as noted, in the fifth) seemed headed for a defeat that would finally end the decade-plus-long Bantam winning skein at 201.

Paul AssaianteKarim Darish and Wael el Hindi

Coach Paul Assaiante (photo: ©2009, Ron Beck)

The truth is that Trinity was fortunate to even get the outcome onto Chaudhry’s racquet in light of how many predicaments their players had dug their way out of earlier on this torrid February 22nd afternoon/evening. Parth Sharma had rallied from a 2-0, 7-2 deficit; Gustav Detter, the hero three years earlier as a freshman of the 5-4 win over Princeton when he faced down the 2-0, 8-6, match-ball lead that Tiger senior and three-time (with a fourth to follow) Individuals champion Yasser El-Halaby had held, had similarly trailed Kimlee Wong (whom Detter had badly out-played barely a week earlier in the dual meet) 2-0, 4-1 before emulating his teammate Sharma in a rallying win; and senior co-captain Manek Mathur, after splitting the opening pair of games in his match against Chris Callis, had been whitewashed 9-0 in the third before overtaking his talented freshman opponent in the closing two laps. That trio of remarkable comeback efforts appeared to be for naught as Sanchez, his confidence growing with every passing point of his 14-1 run, routed Chaudhry in that one-sided fourth game and continued his momentum to 5-0 in the fifth.

But, just when it appeared that Trinity had finally run out of miracles, Chaudhry, whose season had almost been undone a few weeks earlier by a midseason wrist injury that nearly required surgery, conjured up the run that will permanently elevate him in college lore from elite player to all-time legend. He cut steadily into Sanchez’s advantage, drawing from 0-5 to 4-5, where the score stood through seven service-changes before Chaudhry tallied to level the game at 5-all. It took an amazing and tension-building 17 hand-outs, many of them at 7-5, for Chaudhry (who, anticlimactically after this thrilling Potter Cup match, would go on to win the Individuals final the following week against Sanchez) to go from 4-5 to 8-5, but eventually he got there and added the final point as well. Sanchez, Wong and fellow senior Hesham El-Halaby (Yasser’s younger brother), a threesome known as “The Amigos” who became the first-ever Princeton senior squash class to earn four Ivy League titles (and to advance to four Potter Cup finals), will forever be remembered for how close they and their teammates came two times in eight days to dethroning the reigning champions — and for falling just short.

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FIFTEEN YEARS AT TRINITY FOLLOWS A WINDING JOURNEY

Again, Champions in 2009Karim Darish and Wael el Hindi

Paul Assaiante and team accept the title over Princeton again. (photo: ©2009, Paul Assaiainte)

If Chaudhry’s eleventh-hour 9-0 run to his school’s eleventh straight Potter Cup enabled him to attain iconic status, all he thereby did was join his coach, Paul Assaiante, who has held that standing for a long time even prior to the memorable conclusion this past winter of his milestone 15th year as head coach of Trinity squash and tennis. A fine player in his own right — he teamed with Gordy Anderson to win the U. S. 40-and-over National Doubles in Baltimore in ’94 and also captured the U. S. 50-and-over singles on his “home’ Trinity turf in ’03 while reaching five other singles finals over the years in age-groups Nationals competition — Assaiante had served as head coach at Army during the 11-year period from 1974-85 and then been a successful squash pro at several clubs in Baltimore, Seattle and the New York metropolitan area prior to moving to Hartford in November ’94.

Through health challenges — including knee surgery in ’94, a ruptured disc in his back that prevented him from accompanying the U. S. team he had been named to coach in the 2001 World Team Championships, and a mild stroke that befell him in ’06, from all of which he has fully recovered — and a series of diverse additional responsibilities (namely a five-year stint as coach of the Hartford Foxforce entry in World Team Tennis from 2001-06, as well as a nine-year and continuing tenure as Director Of Athletic Development and College Relations At Trinity College), Assaiante, 56, has gallantly and victoriously soldiered onwards.

In the process, he has weathered the not occasional barbs from jealous coaches and alumni of opposing squash powers, as well as the constant pressure created by the expectations forged from Trinity’s record-shattering winning streak; the evolving dynamics of the college scene (including mid-2000’s recruiting-rules changes that worked to Trinity’s disadvantage); the fact that Trinity never gets to host the Potter Cup (due to the Kellner Squash Center ‘s 10 courts being deemed an insufficient number for an event of this magnitude), meaning that every year they have to defend their title on someone else’s home turf; and the ever-present conundrum of having teenage or at most early-20’s players in an individual sport (frequently natives of countries that are at odds with each other) embrace the team concept, sometimes having to sacrifice their own considerable egos in the process.

TEAM WALK-OUT
This latter phenomenon has been put to the test several times during Assaiante’s coaching career, largely due to his forcefully self-avowed and longstanding belief that seniors should be the leaders of any given Trinity team, even when (as happened in consecutive years in 2001 and 2002, when first Michael Ferreira and then Bernardo Samper held the No. 1 position in the lineup during their respective freshman years) they are not the best players on the roster.

Assaiante as US CoachKarim Darish and Wael el Hindi

Paul Assaiante. (photo: ©2009, Debra Tessier)

Samper, who actually won the Intercollegiate Individual title as a freshman in ’02, bought into his coach’s team model from the start, but Assaiante’s philosophy of putting a senior in the starting lineup rather than an underclassman if its at all a close call between the two has at times rankled the left-out player and even led to a brief mutiny during the 1998-99 season that lasted much of the week leading up to a crucial match that impending weekend against a powerful Harvard squad. At the time the Crimson varsity was fully capable of beating even a full-strength Trinity team, much less one that was depleted by the loss of the seven starting-nine players who walked out immediately following Assaiante’s announcement of his decision that Tuesday morning that an American upperclassman would be playing at No. 9 ahead of an India-born freshman who had won the most recent of the several challenge matches (which had gone both ways) between the pair.

Assaiante held one-on-one meetings with each of the unhappy players during the next 48 hours leading to a team meeting that Thursday morning, in which one of the most influential team members, a compatriot of the Indian freshman, convincingly told his peers that even though a different decision would likely have been reached in their respective native countries, they had all signed up to play for Coach Assaiante and hence should respect and abide by his decision. Bonded by the crucible of the several-days ordeal, the Bantams thrashed Harvard 8-1 that weekend (avenging their disappointing 5-4 loss in the previous season’s Potter Cup final and snapping a 91-match Harvard home winning streak in the process) and the dynasty, which days earlier had been in danger of foundering even before it truly began, had been officially launched and continues to the present time.

CLOSE CALLS

Assaiante as cheerleaderKarim Darish and Wael el Hindi

Paul Assaiante. (photo: ©2009, Debra Tessier)

Not that there haven’t been plenty of other close calls along the way in addition to Detter’s aforementioned heroics against the fearsome Yasser El-Halaby in the ’06 Trinity-Harvard dual meet. In 2004, an extremely strong Crimson squad led by Will Broadbent and ’07 Individuals champ Siddharthe Suchde (who swept past Trinity Nos. 1 and 2 Samper and Ferreira respectively) was on the verge of taking the Potter Cup final, leading four matches to three before Yvain Badan eked out a tight battle, leaving the outcome to senior captain Pat Malloy. The latter, when apprised by his coach during the between-games break at a game apiece that the meet hinged on his match, responded that he had waited his entire college career for such a moment and proceeded to close out the ensuing pair of games. And in February 2007, again against Harvard, the Trinity players had been having all kinds of trouble adjusting to the new four-glass-wall exhibition court that had been installed in Cambridge’s Murr Center, losing several matches in that unfamiliar venue before being rescued by newly arrived freshman Supreet Singh (co-captain-elect along with Chaudhry for the 2009-10 campaign) in the deciding match of that 5-4 tally.

As Trinity squash continues to extend its reign from one year to the next, the honors for the program itself, for its individual standout members (including the three Individuals champions Assaiante has coached, namely Marcus Cowie in 1997 and 1998 and, as noted, Samper in 2002 and Chaudhry in 2008 and 2009, as well as Preston Quick, class of 2000, the S. L. Green U. S. National Open champion in 2003 and 2004) and for Coach Assaiante himself have steadily mounted. He was named USOC Coach Of The Year for the 1998-99 season in recognition of the first of his 11 Potter Cup titles and of his service that year as head coach of the U. S. teams that competed in both the Pan American Federation tournament and the biennial World Team Championships. The Hartford Business Bureau gave Assaiante an award for his outstanding contribution to sports in the city and the Hartford Courant named him one of Connecticut’s top sports coaches in the 20th century. In the summer/spring of 2008, he also received two tennis-coaching awards, namely the ITA region coach of the year and the NESCAC  co-coach of the year.

Assaiante’s fondest memories seem to be not these individual accolades that have come his way but rather the loyalty he has earned from his players and the commitment they have developed to the team philosophy he has put forth. A few years ago, when one of his freshman recruits had interrupted Assaiante’s opening remarks at the first team meeting of the season with wise-cracking interjections, one of the team’s upperclassmen, Simba Muhwati, asked his coach to leave the meeting for a few minutes, during which he lectured the offending neophyte that that kind of conduct was not acceptable and was not to recur. And even at the end of the triumphantly celebratory team banquet this past April 13th, Mathur, his college career now behind him, made sure to impress upon the returning lettermen the importance of the tradition they were now charged with upholding when he looked in their direction from his perch on the podium and, in a clear reference to the 11-year Potter Cup skein, intoned, “Number Twelve is now in your hands.”

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Historical information PSA Men's Pro Event:

Year Winner Runnerup Scores
1996 Jansher Khan Ahmed Barada  
1997 Peter Nicol Jansher Khan  
1998 Ahmed Barada Martin Heath 15/5,15/17,15/13,13/15,15/13
1999 Peter Nicol Ahmed Barada 15-9, 15-13, 15-11
2000 Peter Nicol Ahmed Barada 15/14, 9/15, 15/3, 15/12
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Year Winner Runnerup Scores
1997 Sarah Fitz-Gerald Michelle Martin  
1998 Michelle Martin Cassie Jackman  
1999 Michelle Martin Carol Owens 9-6, 9-0, 10-9
2000 Leilani Joyce Carol Owens 8/10, 9/7, 9/5, 3/9, 9/5

 







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