The last time Princeton University hosted the College Squash Association (CSA) men’s national team championships, the Tigers came within an eyelash of derailing the Trinity College dynasty.
In the titanic 2009 title match that lasted more than six hours, Princeton came within two points of taking the crown before falling 5-4 to the Bantams.
This weekend, Princeton is again hosting the CSA competition and longtime Tiger head coach Bob Callahan believes his team could have what it takes to end Trinity’s 13-year championship run.
Noting the high level of parity in the sport and the fact that Yale snapped Trinity’s 252-match winning streak in January, Callahan sees the 2012 CSA as more wide open than it has been in years.
“Everyone feels excited that it is not preordained; any one of six teams feels that they could win,” said Callahan, whose team is seeded No. 2 behind the Bantams after going 12-1 overall and 7-0 in Ivy League action in winning the program’s 17th league title.
Since Trinity lost to Yale, they haven’t been in that position before coming into this. On the basis of that alone, teams think they have a chance.”
Coming into the season, Callahan wasn’t sure that his team had a chance to be a title contender.
“The biggest question marks were would Chris Callis and Kelly Shannon be healthy,” said Callahan, referring to his senior standouts who have struggled with injuries during their Princeton careers.
“Chris came in ready to go right off the bat, his back was better. Over the fall, he regained confidence and conditioning. Shannon came in healthy but injured his shoulder on our fall trip. When he was coming back from that, he twisted his ankle. He is just getting back in the lineup. We had some good freshmen coming in but you are not sure how good they will be compared to the players they will see in college.”
Callahan acknowledged that he had an ace in the hole with defending national champion Todd Harrity firmly ensconced at No. 1.
“Todd has such a spectacular season last year,” said Callahan of the junior who didn’t lose a single game during the individual championship tournament as he become the first American-born player to win the title in 21 years.
“In just about every match, you can figure that he will win and you only need to win four of the remaining matches.”
After cruising to a 7-0 start this season, Princeton pulled off a spectacular win at Harvard in mid-January.
“That was a huge win for us,” asserted Callahan, pointing out that Harvard had won the preseason Ivy scrimmage and received an added boost from the debut of international star Ali Farag in the January match.
“With all the parity, it has become the year of the home court advantage. The top 6 teams have all been winning their home matches. We went up to Harvard who had Ali Farag and pulled out a win on the road. It was one of the most rewarding wins I have had at Princeton.”
Two weeks later, Princeton suffered its only loss of the season as it fell 7-2 at juggernaut Trinity, who brings a 16-1 record into the CSA competition. Despite the lopsided final score, Callahan drew positives from the match.
“Three of the matches were close, going to five games with 11-9, 13-11, and 11-8 scores in those games” said Callahan, who is in his 31st season at the helm of the program and guided the Tigers to the 1993 CSA Potter Cup national team title.
“If six points go the other way, it could be a 5-4 match. They are a very good team, as always. They have responded very well to the Yale loss with 7-2 wins over us, Harvard, and Rochester.”
Princeton responded well to the Trinity setback, rolling past Yale three days later.
“We played Yale here and won 8-1; we were helped quite a lot by the home advantage,” said Callahan.
“That was a big win; there was a lot of talk about Yale after they beat Trinity.”
That triumph set the table for Princeton to gain the outright Ivy title which they clinched last Sunday with 8-1 victory over Columbia.
“That is my No. 1 goal every year,” said Callahan, reflecting on winning the Ivy crown.
“We got it without sharing, that is a great tribute to our kids. It was great to see the kids rise to the occasion in those matches. We came really close the last two years, it is nice to have something go your way. It was good for seniors to bookend their careers; they won the Ivies as freshman but lost the famous match to Trinity at the CSA.”
Callahan is hoping his players can rise to the occasion this weekend in the friendly confines of Jadwin.
“It is absolutely huge; we hope to be able to take advantage,” said Callahan, referring to the home court advantage.
“It does dissipate as the tournament goes on with three straight matches. Every time you play on the court, you get more comfortable.”
In Callahan’s view, there are four basic keys to success in the eight-team draw at the CSA.
“We need to be ruthlessly efficient in the first round and make every match a 3-game match,” said Callahan.
“You need to get off the court and preserve energy. So efficiency is No. 1 Second is to stay healthy and get as much rest as possible. The third is to have confidence and be optimistic, and the fourth thing is to have a little luck.”
The Tigers have established a blueprint for success which gives Callahan additional cause for optimism coming into the weekend.
“We do matches in three shifts, starting with Nos. 3, 6, and 9,” explained Callahan.
“We have done extremely well in the first shift; we had a 2-1 lead in all of our big matches except for Trinity. They have set the tone; hopefully they can keep doing that this weekend.”
If so, Princeton could use this weekend at Jadwin to make squash history.