Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Potter Cup Final vs. Trinity

It was a bitter end to our best season in years; finishing a few games short of a national championship. After the final, we pulled together on the show court for the trophy ceremony.  As the captains accepted our Runner-Up bowl, some players wore half-hearted smiles and some were so emotionally spent that they couldn't mask their disappointment.

If you had told us in January that we would be close to beating Trinity in the Potter Cup finals this year, we should have been overjoyed.  We had not been to the finals since 2005 and had finished third in the nation in 2011.  This season, we had a rocky start and a trip to the finals seemed unlikely.

We started off with a devastating 5-4 loss to Princeton.  After the long drive back to Cambridge, there was nothing to be done except get back to work. Through the middle of the season, we kept getting stronger with each match, including a convincing victory over Cornell.  We continued to gather steam with a hard-fought win over Yale, which earned us a share of the IVY Title for the first time since 2006.

We had been gaining on Trinity for the past year.  In 2012, they handed us our worst defeat of the season at 7-2.  It was a lesson in competing with our backs against a wall.  

They won this year’s regular season match 5-4 but, even though the result was only a two-point gain from last year, the performance reflected a massive shift in our mindset.  There was not one match that fell to Trinity easily.  We raced them down the stretch at full throttle and they beat us by a nose.  We knew we were capable of pulling it off the Crimson's first win against Trinity in over a decade.

Going into nationals, we had to deal with the loss of our Co-Captain, Jason Michas, from the lineup.  It was a real blow to our team.  Not only was he undefeated until the injury, but he was a great example of how to compete and carry oneself under pressure.  

During the Yale match, Jason was tied 1-1 against Charlie Wyatt when he tore his hamstring doing a split at full speed.  Adrenaline pumping, he somehow managed to win the third game but felt the severity of the injury during the break.    

Knowing that he was only one game away from winning the last match of his senior year for an IVY title, he couldn't be talked out of continuing.  His concern was how to beat Wyatt without lunging onto his right leg.  Jason usually relies on fitness and movement to grind opponents down and rarely takes chances with the ball.  To have any chance of winning, he would have to end the rally quickly before his opponent could take control.  He started shuffling quickly across the mid-court and volleying everything he could.  He hit a few outrageous winners and at first, was able to keep Wyatt behind.  As the game went on, he could not keep retrieving on only one leg.  As he lost the fourth and then the fifth, he never let the crowd or his opponent see that he was hurt.  

The night before the Potter Cup final, our heads still echoed from the dramatic semi-final win against Princeton.  It it could have been tempting for the men to take their foot off the gas on Sunday, secure in the knowledge that they had had a good run and surpassed their seeding.

If there was any trace of complacency, it quickly evaporated when we walked on the main glass court for introductions.  The boom of the crowd and throngs of Trinity fans clad in blue and yellow jolted us into the present.  Trinity has a tremendous following and they seem to make any facility feel like their home turf.  

The Crimson supporters created a smaller but equally passionate group.  Our "Jacked Varsity" unit alone filled a good portion of the gallery.  Several of our women's team players had come down as well, reciprocating the men’s supporting efforts the previous weekend.

As always, we had the support of our wonderful group of parents.  They had been such an important part of our team all season long; organizing dinners and bringing drinks, sandwiches and snacks to matches all over the east coast.  They were the boys' cheering section in victory and consolers in defeat.  We were also excited to have a few young alumni from the NYC area!  Our thanks to Cece Cortez, Nirasha Guruge, Reed Endressen, and Ali Zindman for their support. 

The first three matches on were  No. 9 Alex Ma, No. 6 Tommy Mullany, and No. 3 Nigel Koh.

Alex started us off against Matt Mackin on Court 2.  He had won some big matches in the past but sometimes struggled with consistency.  At the 9 spot, most winning performances are long, drawn-out battles in which fitness and superior concentration wins the day.  In previous years, Alex showed shot-making brilliance but struggled when his hands were not "on."  He would have a real test against Matt Makin, a great athlete who had defeated Matty Roberts two weeks prior.

The new and improved Alex Ma stepped on the court. He lost the first game, but came off court with a level head and recognized the adjustments he needed to make.  In the next two games, he played with maturity, focus and tactical savvy, winning 11-4 and 11-7.  After a few diving gets and a dramatic cross-court kill into the nick he won the forth 11-7 and raised his hands over his head in triumph.

Tommy played on the three-wall glass court against Johan Detter, brother of the legendary Trinity streak-saver, Gustav Detter.  Like Gustav, Johan is a classic runner who keeps rallies long and rarely makes errors.  Tommy was able to take the first game with penetrating drives but couldn't get comfortable in the second.  Though Tommy controlled the T for much of the match, Johan’s relentless retrieving pressured Tommy into aim a hair's length above the tin.  Tommy made some errors and Johan’s confidence kept rolling as he ran to a four game victory.

Nigel faced Miled Zarazua on the main show court.  Miled came to Trinity from Mexico as one of the top junior players in North America.  He is a fearless shotmaker with quick hands.  At the Murr Center a few weeks prior, he had beaten Nigel in four games.  On paper, this looked as though it could be our toughest match of the day.  Luckily for us, Nigel didn't care what the odds-makers said.

Zarazua came out firing and took the first two games 11-8 and 11-7.  In the third, Nigel came out a different animal and caught Zarazua off guard, allowing him only 5 points.  The fourth was tight and Nigel was able to sneak through 12-10 to force a fifth game.  

The finish will be forever etched in everyone's mind.  Nigel found himself down 8-10 as the crowd swelled with spectators overflowing down corridors.  Those who could see the action were yelling scores to others stuck out of view.

Nigel miraculously saved two game balls to come back and won,12-10 in the fifth!  

We were 2-1 up.  

The second round of matches featured No. 8 Matty Roberts, No. 5 Tyler Olson, and No. 2 Brandon McLaughlin.  

Matty Roberts was simply outplayed by Moustafa Hamada.  The Egyptian was too strong on the day and took the match in three games.  Matty's game has improved notably this year.  With his ample talent and work ethic, we know he will win big matches for us in the seasons to come.

Tyler fought hard with aggressive volley drops and top-notch court coverage but couldn't  stay with the pace and precision of the Indian Jr. National Team player, Vishrab Kotian.

In the regular season match two weeks earlier, Brandon had narrowly defeated Juan Camilo Vargas, a freshman from from Columbia. “Juanca” is a great athlete who attacks from anywhere.  Brandon’s game revolves around finding the right balance in his rhythm.  He is a natural shooter with an up-tempo style.  The key is not letting the pace get so frenetic that it slips out of his control. 

Brandon was able to stay in front of him in the first game, taking the ball early. He lost the second narrowly and couldn’t quite adjust to take back control. After struggling in the next two games to regain the momentum, he lost in four.

Trinity had swung the tide, 4-2.  Co-Captain Zeke Scherl was up at 7, Gary Power at 4 and Ali at 1.

Ali's match was on first of the final flight.  He had a chip on his shoulder from the previous day's loss against Princeton and stormed past the talented Reinhold Hergeth (a neighbor of Reggie's from Bloemfonein, South Africa).  Reinhold is a terrific shot maker but was clearly outmatched by Ali.  It was our most dominant performance of the day with the score of 11-4, 11-5, 11-5.

Zeke went on against Zeyed El-Shorafy, who's court sense and craftiness make him a standout at the 7 position.  Zeke fought furiously and held his own in the first, though he lost 11-8.  Zeyed upped his game and took the second 11-5.  With a raucous and growing Trinity crowd pressed against the glass and yelling down over the top of the court, Zeke held him off, winning the third game 11-8.  Zeyed then turned it on and won the fourth, 11-6.

Gary Power was the last on court.  He was playing Karan Malik, a strong freshman from India. Karan has great hands and can lay down his drives as well as anyone in college squash.  Gary had come away victorious when they met two weeks prior and he went into the match full of confidence.  The match started at a blistering speed and Malik hit several outright winners to take the first game.  He couldn't sustain the pace of the first though, as Gary took the next two games 4-11, 9-11.  Malik was looking tired and it seemed that Gary would wear him down and control the end of the match the match, just as he had done in the semi final.  Gary’s phenomenal retrieving was especially impressive considering that he had played for over two hours the previous day.

As Gary was about to serve in the fourth game, the Trinity fans exploded in celebration of their fifth match win on the neighboring court.  The roar from the growing swarm of players and fans reverberated through the building.  For a minute, Gary and Malik stood still in position for the serve and waited for the din to subside.  

With the championship clinched for Trinity at 5-3, the match continued but without the same vigor. Gary was clearly deflated and began making uncharacteristic errors in the fourth.  The delighted Trinity players and fans slid into seats around the court, hoping for a cherry on top.  Malik suddenly had a wind at his back.  Free from tension, he seemed to no longer feel the mileage on his legs and his strokes regained their fluidity.  He worked his way back into the match and hit several outrageous nicks as the crowed continued to bellow.  Malik won in 5 games.

As one would expect after a tough loss, the ride home started in silence.  The wound was too fresh for any of the guys to be cheered up.  About halfway back to Cambridge, some  perspective started to creep back in and they remembered that life will go on after they got back to campus.  The usual banter started to spark over burgers and milkshakes at Wendy's.  

Looking back on the season we could see that we took several steps forward as a team.  We trained smart and hard, finishing the season with minimal injuries.  There was a greater poise and tenacity in our biggest matches.  Not only did we finish with a better national and IVY League standing than in the last few years, but we comported ourselves well in victory and defeat.  

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