Men’s Squash Finishes Season with a Bang by Beating Williams and Bates

By WILL CASE

Last week, Feb. 23 to 25, the men’s squash team was in Connecticut taking part in the College Squash Association’s (CSA) team national championships, where they competed in the C division for the Summers Cup — a trophy that the team has brought back to Middlebury six of the last nine years. The Panthers place third in the eight-team field, finishing the season ranked 19th in the country, two spots above their ranking entering the tournament.

The Panthers’ young roster found itself ranked 21st heading into the weekend, behind the likes of conference rivals Williams and Bates. And that fact was not lost on the Panthers, who beat Williams 8–1 just a few weeks ago at Nescacs in the third-place match.

The way the final regular-season rankings fell dictated the draws teams got at nationals. With the C division featuring teams ranked Nos. 17 through 24 in the CSA poll, the 21st-ranked Panthers were the five seed in their draw. Despite not being shown their due respect by the CSA poll, the Panthers’ seeding meant they got to matchup with No. 20 Williams immediately when the tournament began last Friday.

In the first of their three meetings this season, Williams edged Middlebury 6–3 in Williamstown on Jan. 6. Middlebury avenged its first loss in Nescacs, dismantling the Ephs win by a score of 8–1. The rubber match between Middlebury and their rival 100 miles to the south down Route 7 would more closely resemble the close match earlier this season than the drubbing the Ephs received courtesy of the Panthers at Nescacs. Middlebury’s 6–3 victory over Williams to begin nationals was in no way easy for the Panthers.

Out of the five matches that went to five sets, the Panthers got four team points. The only match the Panthers conceded that went the distance was in the No. 8 slot, occupied by the usually trusty Thomas Wolpow ’20. Even then, Wolpow’s match could have gone either way. The sophomore bookended two not-so-close games with 11–9 wins in the first and fourth sets to set up a rubber match with Williams’ Andrew Litvin.

To say Wolpow’s fifth set with Litvin was a marathon, drag-it-out battle would be a gross understatement. Litvin managed to edge out Wolpow in the deciding fifth set by a final score of 24–22. (24–22!) The result wound up as not only the longest of last weekend’s national tournament, but the longest of the entire squash season.

Jack Kagan ’20, in the third slot, also provided plenty of good highlights in Middlebury’s first match of the tournament. Kagan’s 11–9, 11–7, 11–8 straight-sets victory over Williams’ Will Means set the tone for the weekend — his own weekend particularly, as Kagan did not drop a match throughout the three-day competition. As with the rest of the team, Kagan fought off midseason adversity when the Panthers seemed to hit a wall to rebound and play some of his best squash at season’s end.

“I definitely feel like I’ve been at the top of my game lately,” Kagan said. “I think I have to owe it to my fitness which just seems much better than in the middle of the season. I have a defined and patient gameplan which I’m much more able to stick to now and I think I just have been playing so much and so many tough matches and practices that my overall fitness must have improved.”

At the top of the ladder, Will Cembalest held things down for the Panthers, as he got to play Williams’ Carl Shuck who narrowly beat him at Nescacs. Shuck had Cembalest on the ropes again last weekend — for the second straight meeting against Williams’ top player, Cembalest found himself in a 2–1 hole after the third set. Yet, this time Cembalest bounced back, winning the fourth set 11–8 and then the decisive fifth set 11–9.

The Panthers’ trio of first-years in five through seven slots was especially strong against Williams. No. 5 Wiatt Hinton ’21 and No. 7 Alex Merrill ’21 both had to come from behind to win their five-game sets.

After falling in the first set to Williams’ David Pincus, Hinton scrapped to an 11–9 victory in the second game. This he followed with an 11–6 loss in the third set and other nail-biter, 12–10, in the fourth set before finally finishing Pincus off in the fifth set 11–6.

“We had trained hard coming into nationals and that training combined with the experience I gained from the whole season made me a better player this weekend,” Hinton said upon returning to school from nationals last Sunday. Hinton echoed Kagan’s comments about how the team feels they were at the top of their collective games as the season ended: “I do feel that I am in peak form right now.”

Henry Pearson ’18, in his last collegiate squash tournament, also provided positives for the Panthers and got some revenge on Williams from an individual standpoint. Pearson defeated Williams’ Wyatt Khosrowshahi in a five-set match in the No. 4 slot. Khosrowshahi has played as high as the No. 2 this season for Williams — he fell in straight sets in that position to Jacob Ellen ’20 at Nescacs — and also dealt Pearson a straight-sets loss in the No. 4 spot back on Jan. 6 in Williamstown.

This time around, Pearson wasted no time getting into his match with Khosrowshahi. He took the opening game 11–5 and then nearly put Khosrowshahi in a 2–0 hole when they traded points in a 12–10 Khosrowshahi victory in the second set. Despite the close loss in the second game, Pearson did not lose any momentum as made clear by his 11–4 drubbing of Khosrowshahi in the third set. After that, Pearson and Khosrowshahi traded 11–5 results, which gave the match victory to Pearson.

The Panthers followed their 6–3 win against Williams with a 6–3 loss to Dickinson in the Summers Cup draw semifinals. Dickinson went on to win the championship by defeating Franklin and Marshall in the Summers Cup final 5–4.

As part of their unbeaten weekends, Kagan and Hinton both won their matches in four sets against Dickinson. Kagan dropped his first game against the Red Devils’ No. 3, Hal Holappa, by a close score of 12–10. The second set between Kagan and Holappa would not prove as close (Kagan took it 11–7), but the last two were both nail biters. In the end, Kagan triumphed 11–9 and 12–10.

After winning his first two games 11–5 and 11–7, Hinton could have won his match against Dickinson No. 5 Cory Litman in straight sets, but Litman managed a 13–11 victory in the third game. Hinton put any concern about the outcome of his match in the decisive fourth set, when he beat Litman 11–6.

In the sixth spot, Epley became the third and final Panther to get his team a point in the match against Dickinson. Like his fellow first-year, Hinton, Epley won his match in four games. Unlike Hinton, the final score shows that Epley had to fight Dickinson’s No. 6, Alex Wattles, to save a win. Epley and Wattles traded victories in the first two games, with Epley taking the first 11–8 and Wattles taking the second 11–5. After that, however, things proved much closer. Both the third and fourth games were pushed pashed 11 points, but Epley took both by a score of 12–10.

Middlebury did not have a lot of time to think about the loss to Dickinson, as the Panthers were back on the court within 24 hours to play Bates for the right to be the No. 19 team in the season’s final rankings and third in the C bracket.

The Panthers beat Bates, who went into nationals ranked No. 18, back on Jan. 12 in Lewiston, Maine, 5-4. Due to the way things shook out at Nescacs, the Jan. 12 matchup would be the only time the teams played prior to last Sunday. Nevertheless, the CSA poll still had the Panthers three spots behind the Bobcats in the rankings.

In the top spot for the Panthers, Cembalest faced a familiar foe in Bates’ No. 1, Mahmoud Yousry. Earlier this season, Yousry beat Cembalest in a very tightly contested four-set affair. As the box score of their latest meeting indicates, Cembalest and Yousry picked up right where they left off, playing close games.

Cembalest managed to pull out a 14–12 victory in the first set and then carried that momentum over into the second game, when topped Yoursy again, this time by an 11–7 tally. Yoursy got the best of Cembalest in the third game, denying the Panthers’ No. 1 a straight set victory by beating him 11–4. Cembalest, who will play in the individual championships in the nation’s capital this weekend, March 2-4, was not deterred. In fact, he managed to one-up Yousry in the deciding fourth set by beating Bates’ top player 11-3.

On the final leg of his undefeated final weekend of his first-year season, Hinton beat Bates’ McLeod Abbott, who has played as high as the third slot on Bobcats’ ladder this season. Hinton won the first set 11–6 and then pulled out a 14–12 victory in a long second set. At that point, the match was all but over, as Hinton’s meticulous grinding away at Abbott let to an 1114–124 third set victory.

“I saw that my opponent was getting tired and frustrated, so I stuck to a basic game plan and waited for him to make mistakes and I gradually gained an edge over him,” Hinton said of his strategy against Bates’ captain.

Epley, one spot down the ladder for the Panthers, completed an undefeated weekend on Sunday against Bates with a five-set victory in the No. 6 slot. After dropping the first set 11–6 to Anirudh Nambiar, Epley laid it on in the second set to get an 11–3 victory. The momentum Epley generated in the second set did not carry over into the third game, as Nambiar managed to gain a 2–1 set advantage with a narrow 11–9 win. After that, however, the match belonged to Epley, who wrapped up a 13-win rookie season for himself with 11–6 and 11–7 victories.

This season the Panthers had three first-years sandwiched in the middle of their ladder, No. 5 Hinton, No. 6 Epley, and No. 7 Merrill. Although they faced the typical ups and downs of rookie seasons, the lessons they learned from the 2017–18 campaign will be incredibly valuable from a growth standpoint heading into their second season.

“My biggest takeaway from this season has been the difference between junior and collegiate squash,” said Hinton. “There is a huge difference in both the intensity and fitness. I have gained so much experience from my first season and made strong developments both mentally and technically.”

Now that he knows what to expect, Hinton is looking to refine what he does between now and the start of the season next November.

“Next season I hope to add on to those improvements and am looking forward to another great year,” said Hinton.

Up the ladder from the trio of first-years in the No. 5–7 slots, Middlebury’s No. 3, Kagan, wrapped up his efforts at nationals by successfully executing his game plan against Omar Attia. Attia is a first-year so Kagan or his fellow sophomores at the top of the Panthers’ ladder will almost certainly be seeing him again in matches in the next couple of years.

Kagan had Attia on the ropes after taking the first two games 11–6 and 11–5. At that point, it seemed Kagan had Attia buried, but the Bobcats’ No. 3 managed to pull out back-to-back 11–9 wins, sending the match to a fifth set.

When asked what was going through his mind when he left the court after the fourth set, and what had changed in the third and fourth games, Kagan gave Attia credit for settling into the match and adjusting.

“After the fourth game with Omar, I knew something had changed and it wasn’t that I was playing worse,” said Kagan after the match.

“[Attia] was playing much better, and I didn’t adapt or change my game at all,” he added. “In games three and four he just stopped making errors which was huge. It was the main reason I had been beating him so soundly. When he made that change, it really leveled the playing field.”

Although he dominated the first two sets against Attia, Kagan said he still wasn’t comfortable at that point in the match.

“Because I wasn’t comfortable with my attacks,” Kagan continued, “basically, I had to hit even straighter than I already was and force his crosscourt — rather than mine — and then I had to volley everything and start attacking when he did give me openings. I had to make him work when he gave me the opportunity because he figured out my original passive game plan.”

Kagan ultimately buckled down in the fifth set, which proved quite anticlimactic as he won convincingly, 11–3.

In the Panthers’ 8–1 victory over Bates, sealing their No. 19 end-of-the-season ranking and third-place in the Summers Cup, Pearson, Sam Giddins ’18 and Cam Dewey ’18 saw their final collegiate action for the Panthers. Team captain Ryan Swope ’18 played in his final match the day before against Dickinson. Pearson beat Bates’ Coley Cannon in the No. 4 slot in four sets, most of which were close, by scores of 14–12, 11–5, 8–11 and 11–9. Giddins played in the ninth slot and lost in a very closely contested four–set match by scores of 6–11, 13–11, 12–10 and 11–6. Dewey won the unscored exhibition game in straight sets.

Cembalest and Kagan will be among those who head to the individual championships in Washington D.C. with members of the women’s team. Ellen would have joined them but had to pull out after an injury riddled season.

“Unfortunately, I pulled out of individuals next weekend just because I want to give myself time to rest after a tough season physically,” said the No. 2. “As a whole, this season was very frustrating to me. I felt like I was never able to be at my best because of things out of my control, but I am proud that I was able to play almost every single match to help my team out. This summer, I am going to work harder than ever physically to get into great shape and that will hopefully help me out for next season.”

Kagan described how much he looks forward to the opportunity.

“Individuals are a really unique opportunity to play against the best players in the country, and I’m excited and honored to be able to play amongst them,” Kagan said. On top of that, Kagan expressed how he and some of his fellow Panthers can benefit from the extra practice and the intensity of the matches.

“I’m excited this week to get some time in with Will and with coach to work on some of these attacks that have been pretty hot and cold for me lately,” Kagan said. “I also hope to do some of my own work on fitness in the short time that we have and maybe do some court sprints to make sure my lungs are up to the task for this weekend.”

The individual championships will start tomorrow, March 2, and run through Sunday, March 4, in Washington D.C.

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


About the Writer
1 Comment

One Response to “Men’s Squash Finishes Season with a Bang by Beating Williams and Bates”

  1. gPC on March 2nd, 2018 5:15 pm

    Well written and very interesting.
    From GPC




Middlebury College's only student-run newspaper.
Men’s Squash Finishes Season with a Bang by Beating Williams and Bates