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Preparation and Practice Put Men’s Squash Ahead

Middlebury’s men’s squash team with the Summers’ Cup Trophy, awarded to the top finisher in the C-bracket. The goal for the Panthers this season is to break into the top 16, which would qualify them for B-bracket competition.

Middlebury Athletic Communications

Middlebury’s men’s squash team with the Summers’ Cup Trophy, awarded to the top finisher in the C-bracket. The goal for the Panthers this season is to break into the top 16, which would qualify them for B-bracket competition.

By WILL CASE

Last Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, the men’s squash team began their 2017-18 season by cleanly sweeping Hamilton 9–0 in the Little Squash Center in Clinton, New York.

While the Panthers are clearly a program on the rise, their ranking has slipped since the season officially began and the College Squash Association (CSA) released its preseason poll. Last season the Panthers finished strong and won their draw in the C bracket, which put them at 17th in the final CSA ranking and brought home the program’s sixth Summers Cup in the last nine years. Nonetheless, this year the CSA put Virginia at No. 17 and spot ahead on the Panthers in the preseason poll. Having not even played a match, the Panthers were bumped down to No. 19 in the ranking the committee released on Dec. 1.

This is the lowest the Panthers have been ranked since head coach Mark Lewis took over the program prior to their epic 2015-16 season, when the Panthers rode the surging duo of David Cromwell ’16 and Henry Pearson ’18, top-ladder stalwart Wyatt French ’17, and the stable pair of Ben Krant ’17 and Will Kurth ’18 at the lower half of the ladder to a thrilling victory over Bates in the Hoehn Cup.

“The team’s training went well this fall and although the list of opponents is difficult they are progressing nicely and we have ambitions to break into the top 16,” said Lewis.

On the court, Middlebury simply overmatched the Continentals. Jacob Ellen ’20, who has solidified his position at the top spot on the ladder for the Panthers, got better as his match went on and took down Hamilton’s top player, junior Colin O’Dowd 14–12, 11–7, 11–4. Last season, Ellen took down O’Dowd in straight sets, 11–5, 11–6, 11–3, but having played each other before, there was no element of surprise this time around.

“I have actually known Colin [O’Dowd] for a while, since junior squash,” said Ellen. “So I know his game very well and I approached both matches the same way trying to play very quickly without making a lot of mistakes.”

Ellen is still getting over a slightly banged-up knee that has bothered him through training the last few weeks, but for those watching this team it seems like this was the perfect match for the No. 1 to shake off the rust.

“I came into the first game a little bit rusty, so I almost lost it, but became much more comfortable on court as the match went along,” said Ellen.

In the second spot, Will Cembalest ’20 also outdid his opponent, Callum Sondhi, in straight sets 11–6, 11–5, 11–4. Rounding out the top third of the ladder was yet another Panther sophomore, Jack Kagan ’20. Kagan played most of his matches last winter in the No. 5 slot, but had no trouble in his first competition as the No. 3 as the sophomore took it to Nicholas Conzelman in straight sets, winning the first two 11–4 and the decisive one 11–3.

Heading into the offseason, Kagan made it a goal to improve his pace, shot strength and technique – all of which are reasons he now finds himself in the No. 3 slot.

“I lifted a lot during the summer after taking the spring to relax and hit more casually,” Kagan explains. “I switched rackets from Wilson to Technifibre and worked on some new swing mechanics while training this past summer. These were all pretty instrumental to me to come in in the fall and feel like my average pace of shot was much higher than ever before.”

And the results are starting to show for Kagan and his team.

“I’m now much more comfortable hitting harder on a regular basis without worrying about making a mistake,” Kagan said. “It’s helping me apply more consistent pressure on my opponents and move them around and often close out points. There’s still work to be done and I’m not yet consistently where I want to be but that’s what practice time is for.”

Coach Lewis is excited about the team’s depth and says that Ellen, Cembalest and Kagan are just the people to face the tough match-to-match competition that they will face it head-on.

“Right now our biggest strength is our depth,” said Lewis. “Even though Jacob Ellen, Will Cembalest and Jack Kagan are securely at the top of our ladder they will face difficult tests in nearly every match they play.”

The barrage of sophomores Middlebury is throwing at the competition this season continued in the No. 4 spot last Saturday when Nick Bermingham ’20 beat one of the Hamilton first-years, John Sawyers, in straight sets. Bermingham finished last season playing in the No. 9 slot for the Panthers, after having split his time between eighth (six appearances) and ninth (twelve appearances) on the ladder.

“The biggest change would have to be sophomore Nick Bermingham going from No. 9 to No. 4,” said Lewis. Bermingham has managed to work his way to the upper half of the ladder even with the strong sophomore and first-year classes that Lewis has recruited.

“He has put in a lot of time on his own and with me,” Lewis continued about Bermingham, “and his efforts and overall consistency have improved dramatically.”

However, it was in the fifth spot where senior Henry Pearson broke up the sophomore parade and also took part in the most compelling match of the day for the Panthers.

Pearson lost in a marathon first set to Tristian Chiax 20–22 which is usually something hard to come back from.

“The first game was tough for sure,” said Pearson. “I was pretty impatient, trying to put the ball away and hitting a lot of tins, and [Chiax] was definitely feeding off that. We went back and forth like that until he eventually pulled out the win with the first game,” although Pearson did battle back after finding himself in an early hole.

“I was pretty frustrated with my mistakes during the match,” Pearson continued, and explained that he “was also making a conscious effort to play relaxed and just enjoy the experience.

“That was hard to do, though, because Chiax definitely fed off that and played with more intensity and aggression. The match did feel like it was going on forever because we were pretty much just feeding off each other’s mistakes over and over again.

Pearson took down Chiax with a pair of 11–5 victories in the second and third sets, before dropping the fourth game to set up a rubber match in which Pearson defeated Chiax 12–10, all the while having to complete a comeback to win the match.

“I didn’t really change my strategy until I was down 10-7 in the fifth,” Pearson said in reference to the decisive fifth set. “I felt like I really had to play smart to win the match. I just started playing straight length to the back and taking whatever opportunities he gave me as quickly as possible, hoping he would make an error first.”

After a year’s absence, Pearson’s return gives the Panthers additional experience.

“The beginning of the season was definitely tough,” Pearson said. “I was pretty out of shape. Now that I’m back in decent shape, it’s mostly been a mental battle for me. I’m still working back into developing an effective and consistent competitive mindset.”

Nonetheless, Pearson assured: “Super fun match overall and I enjoyed the fight!”

Thomas Wolpow ’20 recorded a straight-set victory in the No. 8 slot for the Panthers which clinched the match victory for the team. The Panthers’ pair of first-years who made appearances in the starting nine, Alex Merrill ’21 and Wiatt Hinton ’21, also took their debut matches in straight sets in the No. 6 and 7 spots. Hinton’s win in the seven spot is even more impressive given that it came over Hamilton’s lone senior, Jonathan Ruth, and given that it wasn’t even close — 11–3 in the first two sets and then 11–2 in the final set.

Sam Giddins ’18 rounded things out for the Panthers in the ninth slot as he also registered a straight set victory 11–8, 11–9, 11–6. While team captain Ryan Swope ’18’s match technically was in the 10th slot and did not count toward the final scoring, he put a beat down on his opponent, Jarrod Gerstein, in straight sets 11–9, 11–1, 11–5 for good measure.

Although the Panthers’ dominated the Continentals, Hamilton entered Saturday ranked No. 28 in the CSA rankings so Middlebury probably won’t move up in the next set of rankings the CSA releases this week. However, next up for Middlebury is a date with a No. 10 Dartmouth squad which will take place at the squash center on Saturday at 6 p.m.

This will be the first of nine matches the Panthers play this season against teams currently ranked higher than Middlebury by the CSA.

Although other programs have been at it in match play for weeks, do not let the Panthers’ open November schedule fool you.

“Because we didn’t play any matches in November and could thus really ramp up our practices physically, I think we’re in good shape,” said Kagan. “For this, everyone’s excited to see where we stack up and to try to become one of the top 16 teams in the country.”

Dartmouth is only the first of many challenges the Panthers will face in a quest to break into the top 16.

“We know that Dartmouth is a really tough team,” said Ellen. “But our team has worked extremely hard since September and we are all playing really well and are excited for the challenge they present.”

While the Panthers struggled mightily last season on the road against Dartmouth, Ellen says the team is hoping to put up a better fight this year.

“They beat us easily last year at Dartmouth and I was out because of the flu,” said Ellen, whose flu also caused him to miss the Panthers’ match against Williams, which they lost 5–4. “Hopefully we can scare Dartmouth a little bit more this year at home and win some matches.”

“It is a challenging schedule,” said Lewis. “The key matches for us are [No. 21] Williams, [No. 18] Bates, [No. 17] UVA and [No. 14] Navy.”

Saturday’s opportunity against Dartmouth will coincide with the women’s side’s match with the also 10th-ranked Dartmouth women’s squad and start just after the conclusion of the women’s hockey game against Castleton. A win or a close battle for the men’s squash team against Dartmouth would lead to a Panther surge in the rankings.

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