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In Its Inaugural Season, BWL Squash Team Braves High School Nationals

 

Squash is a sport of mind games, strategy, pain, and suffering. It pits two players on an 18.5’ x 32’ court to whack, wheeze, and lunge their way to the best of five games.  And, despite these odds, the first year of BWL’s squash team saw 40 Middle and Upper School students come to tryouts. Coaches Sally Hatfield (2nd grade assistant teacher) and Natalie Roth (3rd grade assistant teacher), who were actually high school squash teammates while at St. George’s School in Rhode Island, pared the squad down to nine. With the help of Michael Kempner, an experienced player and whose son, Ted, is in kindergarten, they were able to find courts at the Sports Club/LA on 61st and 2nd. With the recent addition of the lacrosse team, Headmaster Frank J. Carnabuci III, who introduced both sports to BWL, is proud to say, “Both new programs have exploded with interest.” 

Most players came to the team with a tennis background, but few had played squash. So, beginning in November, the twice-weekly practices covered fundamentals like the rules of the game, proper grips, and body position. Soon enough, the coaches worked out a ladder and initiated “challenge matches” to test these rankings.

No one could challenge Ginger Sands ’14, however, who is currently ranked 32nd nationally among all girls 17-and-under. Coaches Hatfield and Roth, who played college squash, respectively, at Middlebury and Hamilton, agree that Ginger will go on to play a high-level game in college. “When she plays with us,” says Ms. Hatfield, we usually set ‘a condition’ for her. So, she has to hit all her shots behind the red line, for instance.” This experience helps the rest of the young squad, which includes Woody Shattan ’15, Alexis Kaufman ’15, Richard Nederlander ’14, Alessandra Pilkington ’16, William Nederlander ’15, Jamie Kaufman ’16, Sydney Foster ’16, and Sam Scott ’15.

After a dozen practices and one match against the Poly Prep junior varsity, the team was about to do something incredibly brave: go to the U.S. Squash High School Nationals, held at Yale University and Choate Rosemary Hall, in Connecticut. “It’s a little bit like going into a buzz saw,” says Mr. Kempner, who himself played for Choate before continuing to play at Harvard. The event welcomed 96 boys’ teams and 64 girls’ teams from New York to Missouri to California. Though BWL’s team was co-ed and also included Middle School students, it played in the boys’ high school division – and without its star, Ginger Sands, who was suffering from mononucleosis.

The squad’s first match, on Friday, February 3rd, was against Radnor High School from Wayne, PA, who went on to its bracket’s finals, losing only to The Westminster School of Georgia. According to #1 seed Woody Shattan, “I would say the tensest moment during the weekend’s competition was our first match coming into the tournament … We were a new team that did not have all the talent, but we had a lot of potential.”

BWL played four more matches, two each on Saturday and Sunday, a time that evidenced a “steep learning curve,” as Ms. Hatfield put it. In between games, when coaching is allowed, she said, “We found that everyone shined in the way they were supporting each other. You could feel the team dynamics working.” “I liked my position on the team,” said Shattan, “because through acting as a secondary advice giver … I could really see how to improve my teammates’ games, as well as my own game.” By watching other matches and talking about what they saw, Ms. Roth said her team “broadened how they watched the game because they were looking for strategy.”

The team’s best match was against New Canaan High School (CT), when Shattan and # 5 seed William Nederlander both won in three convincing sets. Lexi Kaufman, the #2 seed, took her opponent to four sets as did #3 seed Richard Nederlander. In this sport where players are their own line judges, “They became more confident in making better calls and they generally understood what their role was, which is a big part of the game,” says Ms. Roth.

She continued, “When it all came together at the tournament, it was incredible to see how far they had come since the beginning, when we were showing them how to hold the racquet. From Friday to Sunday, their match play increased exponentially.” Mr. Carnabuci concurred: “It was just so rewarding to see them find the sport so stimulating.”

Eventually, the squad may receive experienced players from the Lower School squash program that has also emerged this year. The four devoted kindergartners heading to the Sports Club/LA each Friday get to play for fun, while receiving tips from coaches Hatfield and Roth. Mr. Kempner says his son, Ted, “Loves it … It’s easier for a little kid to play squash than tennis. They hit it at a wall rather than over a net – and they like that satisfaction.” Next year, the program will be open to both kindergartners and first graders.

And next year, the 7th to 12th grade program should also broaden. “Now, we’re on the radar,” says coach Hatfield, who looks for a busier competition schedule next season. “Leaving that tournament, I think they were starting to get really excited.”

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