Harling Ross had not gotten a win at the national squash championships in Princeton, NJ. So on Feb. 20th, she stepped onto the court against her Connecticut College opponent feeling she needed a victory, not only for herself, but also for the team.
“[I was] confident as I stepped onto the court that day,” Ross (COL ’14) said. “I knew I was playing for my team and they were playing for me.”
But Ross didn’t know that the team was up four games to two, meaning that if she won this match, the Hoyas would clinch the national championship.
“We all were watching Harling and she was so relaxed. When she was up in the fourth game, she didn’t even realize that this could seal the championships,” team captain Kiran Gandhi (COL ‘11) said. “She was like, ‘Where’s the ball, let’s go.’”
Ross won the match, and the Georgetown’s women’s squash club took home the Eggs Cup—the trophy given to national squash champions—from Princeton, the only national championship won by a Georgetown team this year. While not many schools compete in squash at a national level, Georgetown’s run was especially impressive since the coachless, student-run club team was competing against varsity programs. On the final day of the tournament, they even wore shirts with hand-drawn “G” logos on them.
The club has a very short history, sprouting up entirely out of the dedicated work of current co-captain and founder Gandhi. Gandhi had been the only girl on the “co-ed” team her freshman year, switching between the eighth and ninth spots on the ladder. But when it came time for the national championships, she was informed that she could not compete because it was a men’s tournament. Undeterred, she contacted the College Squash Association, which informed her she could bring a five-girl team to the tournament to compete in the emerging teams division.
So Gandhi put flyers up in Yates Fieldhouse in January 2008 and was able to scrape together a team of five girls for that spring’s tournament in Princeton. Fellow co-captain Katie O’Mealia (COL ‘11) joined the team after seeing one of the flyers while playing squash with a friend. The College Squash Association subsidized the trip to New Jersey, and Georgetown’s thrown-together squad won the emerging teams bracket.
But even after this big win, the new team was still forced to compete as co-ed squash club because of the Center for Student Programs rules that dictate the process club sports must go though before being approved. Until the spring 2009 semester, the men’s and women’s teams shared the same budget because the women’s team was considered to be the second ladder of the overall club.
CSP’s official recognition of the team as a club gave the team its own funding, which enabled the players’ search for a coach. Although the approval process was frustrating, Gandhi said she understands why CSP makes teams go through a lot to gain official recognition.
“They just want to make sure that teams aren’t starting the ping pong club for one or two years during their Georgetown career and that it collapses after they graduate,” Gandhi said. “I needed to prove that the team would stick around. They didn’t understand that the team had just won [the emerging teams]nationals, but only cared about us showing that we had numbers.”
Even with this new recognition, the team faced issues that limited its growth. First among these was coaching. In order to get a coach, the team needed someone to make a donation to the school with specification that it would fund the squash team. They finally hired a coach at the start of this season, but he ran irregular practices which he did not take seriously.
“His intentions were good but I think he didn’t know what he was doing,” Gandhi said. “So I fired him at the end of the first semester because I didn’t want our team’s money to be wasted”.
After firing the coach, Gandhi and O’Mealia, along with Carolyn Meister (COL ‘13) began running practices. They instituted more traditional practice methods, including core training and developing specific shots by only using drop shots, or rails, the squash term for straight shots.
“At the beginning for club teams, it’s tough to ensure attendance and everyone is there because they want to be there at first, but you have to give them a reason to come back,” Gandhi said. “I don’t have as much authority as a varsity level coach would have to make the team show up.”
But this season’s practices were completely full. The team, which has grown to 13 members, even struggled to find court space for everyone to play on. Players began to show up to all four practices each week even though they were only required to come to two.
“At the practices the girls were there for all self and team motivation,” Meister said. “By nationals, we just wanted to win it for Kiran and Katie because it was their last season.”
As the team has grown in size, competition for use of the squash courts in Yates has become an increasing problem. There are two international courts and two American courts—the international courts are wider—in Yates, but coordinating times for the team to hold practices has proven difficult, since the courts are used by both men’s and women’s squash teams, intramurals, and other Yates members. Making matters worse, official games are only held on the international courts, and normally, the team can only use one of those courts at a time.
Associate Director of Yates Charles Kennedy helps the team organize practice times and set up meets in Yates. He credits Gandhi and the team for understanding all of the functions of Yates and working within those constrictions to find practice times.
“Kiran’s very passionate and has done a spectacular job,” Kennedy said. “She took the leadership when she first got here and created a very successful and competitive team.”
Gandhi’s passion helped the team to a successful regular season from October to February. Though the most competitive teams are located in New England, the team’s meager budget makes frequent travel to the Northeast infeasible. The majority of the club’s matches are either played at Yates, at George Washington University, or the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. This year, the team won all but three of its matches, dropping contests to Haverford College, Columbia University, and Franklin and Marshall College.
Despite its regular season success, the championships in Princeton started off with the team seeded seventh in the “D” division. Facing second seed St. Lawrence in the opening match, Georgetown got off to a hot start in the opening series, winning the first three games.
“It was great going up 3-0 because we realized we can actually do this,” O’Mealia said.
The team went on to win 6-3 with both O’Mealia, Gandhi, and Meister knocking down St. Lawrence’s top two players. The next day the team faced Smith College, the third seed, still feeling like an underdog but much more confident after their upset victory. Everyone was doing their part to prepare for the matches as freshmen scouted out the other teams and players shared tips about opponents they had faced in high school.
“With Smith we realized that we could actually [advance]. We could go in and win it,” O’Mealia said. “St. Lawrence had beat Smith 8-1 and we had just beaten St. Lawrence.”
The Hoyas ended up winning by a decisive 7-2 margin, lining them up to face Connecticut College, the first seed in the division, who Smith had lost to handily during regular season play.
When Georgetown showed up to the finals on Sunday, the Connecticut College team was already waiting on the court. There was a lull before anything happened because Connecticut was waiting for Georgetown’s coach to show up, not knowing that Gandhi and O’Mealia lead the team by themselves.
Meister and number nine player Lindsay Wiel (COL ‘13) won the first two matches in three straight games each, while Julia Caffrey (COL ‘14), Georgetown’s sixth player on the ladder, fought a strong battle but ended up losing out in five games.
With a two-game lead, Gandhi was next up.
“Kiran just rolled through her girl,” O’Mealia said. “There was never a question with her—she didn’t drop a game all tournament.”
Gandhi said her motivation sprang from the dedication she saw in her teammates and their parents—the parents shuttled them to the matches and brought meals to the team, and the team itself showed incredible drive throughout the weekend.
“It was just a lot of love, and then when people see that everyone is there foryou all you can do is freaking win,” Gandhi said.
O’Mealia was the next player to start a match.
“Katie walked on to the court and was in this squash Zen,” Gandhi said. “The girl she was playing had beaten me the previous year so I really wanted her to win for the team and for payback.”
O’Mealia started out on the wrong foot by dropping her first game of the entire tournament, but ended up winning the match.
“It was really intimidating,” she said. “But I thought, ‘This is everything. I have to win this for the team in my last season,’ and I somehow was able to grind it out and win the next three games.”
When Ross sealed the victory with her win, the Hoyas stormed onto the court in a tearful celebration. Five Hoyas didn’t lose a match in the entire tournament: Gandhi, O’Mealia, Meister, Weil, and Lindsay Kolowich (COL ‘13).
In Princeton, the club was lauded by all the other teams, who were amazed at Georgetown’s run to victory without a coach. But returning to Georgetown, the captains received no hero’s welcome—instead, they faced a giant pile of paperwork.
“CSP doesn’t understand that we’re not playing other club teams and that we’re at the national varsity level,” Gandhi said.
Moving forward, the control of the team is being handed over to Meister. She already has plans to schedule more games with powerful New England schools, since without playing more matches against ranked teams, Georgetown will be stuck in the “D” division.
“We’re going to tell CSP that this is so important that we make it out to play [Connecticut College] and other ranked teams, that we have those numbers in the bank before making it out to nationals,” Gandhi said.
The squad is also working on finding a new coach. They hope to hire Larissa Stephenson, a New Zealander who has experience coaching squash at the collegiate level and has helped the team out in the past. The only thing that has prevented Stephenson from stepping in as the coach is that the team couldn’t pay her.
“CSP was working with a financial office in the Car Barn, and they just didn’t get the paperwork together before nationals,” Gandhi said.
The club wants to move up to the varsity level one day, but they figure at least two things need to happen before that day comes. The first priority is to set up an alumni network to allow former players to donate to the program. Then, down the road, the team believes it will need a separate “squash barn” with five courts and storage space. That dream will be especially tough to realize because of Georgetown’s tight space limitations, but the team remains hopeful, especially after seeing Columbia’s club team move up to varsity this season.
As for the immediate future, the team will head into next year with raised expectations but without its founder. The women’s squash club hopes to move into a higher division next year and wants to compete against better teams more often. However, they will need to continue dealing with limited funding, courts, and coaches for now.
“It was a team effort, we really needed everyone to win their match,” O’Mealia. “Every single person counts.”