It may have come as a shocker when the College Squash Association announced the pre-season rankings a couple of months ago. The Harvard women’s squash program, the seven-time defending champions, who at the time had not lost a match-up since 2015, found themselves relegated to the second spot. Ranked ahead of the Crimson was a Trinity College lineup with uncertain prospects after a disappointing 2022 Howe Cup campaign that saw the second-ranked Bantam fail to make the finals.
Fast-forward to Sunday, January 15–the Murr Center is so crowded that a second row of spectators cranes its necks in the upper standing area to catch glimpses of the one versus two showdown taking place between Harvard and Trinity College. The Bantam made it immediately clear that its players were not there to be steamrolled like many of the teams that have played Harvard in the past five years. To put it in context, the Crimson only faced one close encounter–a win by a margin of just one game–last season. This took place on a road trip to New Jersey in January of 2022, where No. 1 Harvard narrowly defeated No. 3 Princeton thanks to a strong fifth-game from then-first-year Habiba Eldafrawy. Despite the close call against Princeton, there was little doubt all season as to whether the stacked 2022 Crimson would come out on top. With the way the team was poised and the ability with which its players maneuvered so smoothly on the court, Harvard was clearly a team used to winning.
Something seemed different in the Murr Center against Trinity College. Egged on by a boisterous crowd that had ventured to Cambridge for the competition and that outnumbered the home-team supporters, the Bantam attacked out the gate. Each bout was incredibly hard-fought with many games going into extra points. But, after the dust of the first three matches had cleared, the Crimson found itself in a very unfamiliar place: down three to nothing.
Sophomore Eldafrawy, who has been a reliable number three this season, swept her opponent to keep Harvard’s hopes alive. This would not be enough, though. The individual victories the Bantam claimed were by no means convincing–three were decided in a close fifth game—and the anticipated bout between the number one players for each team ended with junior Marina Stefanoni securing another match victory for the Crimson. Nonetheless, Trinity College ended the afternoon up seven on Harvard’s two, ending a historic 102 match win streak. The Bantam has answered the question that teams have been wondering for years: can the Crimson be beat?
Many other questions arose from this defeat of a college sports giant. How will the team respond? Will Harvard win another title? Are there other teams that can beat the Crimson?
The two weeks that followed the Trinity College encounter were packed with squash action for the group of Harvard women looking to reestablish their dominance on the court. The Crimson, still undefeated in Ivy League play and looking to claim a seventh straight Ivy crown, needed to ensure it was at the top of its form as it faced off against conference opponents No. 4 Princeton, No. 9 University of Pensylvannia, No.6 Cornell, and No. 8 Columbia.
The Tigers were dispatched with confidence by a strong and determined Harvard side. The Quakers met a similar fate at the hands of the Crimson, and Harvard posted a familiar 9-0 result against Penn thanks to strong lead games from Eldafrawy, sophomore Brecon Welch, and senior Charlotte Orcutt.
Stefanoni also recorded her seventh win in seven games played this season, against the Quakers. An essential element to the Crimson’s soaring successes last year playing the number two, the Darien, Connecticut native has really come into her own this season taking up her racquet as the team’s number one.
One of the big unknowns coming into the season for Harvard was the roster gap left by a graduated Hana Moataz ’22, and how the Crimson would fare shifting its athletes up a rung on the ladder. But part of what made last year’s team so successful was the sheer depth of its roster. In 2022, Harvard had three different players win matches at the number one–Stefanoni being one of them–, three players win at the number two, and five players win while taking a turn playing the number three. So when the time came to take the court this season as a new roster, Stefanoni fit into the role of the new number one seamlessly.
Harvard’s penultimate Ivy League match-up, against the Big Red, proved the Crimson’s depth, but also served as a too-soon reminder to this roster’s mortality. Although Harvard ultimately won the duel, the top three players on the ladder–Stefanoni, first-year Saran Gregory-Nghiem, and Eldafrawy–lost their individual match-ups to challenging opponents. The responsibility of the victory then fell to players four through nine on the roster. Dropping only three sets between the six of them, Harvard’s lower rung players rose to the occasion, emphasizing the importance of having strong players across the roster in order to experience team success.
The New York road trip ended in New York City, where the Crimson played the Lions, its final conference opponent, with a chance to clinch the Ivy League title. Harvard was pushed to the brink against a surprisingly equipped Columbia squad.
Welch opened the scoring for the Crimson, sweeping her opponent at the five position. Junior, Binney Huffman added to the tally with another sweep. After these two promising victories, though, the Lions turned the tables. Locked in an intense duel in the one spot, a few well placed shots marginally handed Stefanoni her second loss of the season. As more of the day’s matches started to play out to a close, one by one, Harvard noticed it was not adding any more points to its score. The six, the seven, and the two matches all finished, and the Crimson found themselves down two overall points to Columbia’s four.
With the Ivy title potentially on the line, Harvard returned to the fundamentals that had won it so many games in the past. The Crimson has outplayed opponents with pure skill and shot selection many times before. However, when opponents also hold the ability to make excellent shots and challenge each possession, Harvard tends to excel physically. A key to the team’s training has always been fitness and conditioning. Being able to win long rallies and games gone into extra points is crucial to overall success. As the day drew on and the Lions started to fatigue, the Crimson was able to continue to win long rallies and chase down difficult balls, giving it an upper hand.
Two victories in the four and nine spot tied the overall score at 4-4, leaving only one final deciding match. In this encounter, Eldafrawy showered her opponent with a medley of different shots, forcing them to burn unnecessary energy in transition. The Cairo native, with poise, closed out the match in a clean sweep to the roar of Harvard teammates.
With the defeat of Columbia, the women ended their conference play with a perfect record and claimed their seventh-straight Ivy League title. To accompany a hard-fought women’s Ivy crown, the men’s squash program, which is currently undefeated, also secured the Ivy League championship with its win over Columbia on the same day. The number-one-ranked men, who missed out on the Ivy title last year as a result of a narrow loss to Penn., reclaimed the conference title with an 8-1 win.
Both the women’s and men’s squash programs have seen enormous success already this season. Nevertheless, there are still high-stakes competitions to prepare for. This upcoming week features an all-Cambridge road trip for the Crimson as it takes on Tufts, St. Lawrence, and Drexel. And once season games conclude, the CSA title-contending Crimson will be looking forward to team nationals in Philadelphia, PA for the women, and Hartford, CT for the men. Here Harvard will be hunting even more hardware for its trophy case as it seeks to, yet again, show itself as the top squash school in the nation.
—Staff writer Callum J. Diak can be reached at email@example.com.