The U.S. Open Squash Tournament was just an appetizer. The tournament, held Sept. 30-Oct. 6 on Drexel’s campus, would only be a small taste of what lays ahead for the inaugural squash season at Drexel.
After the one-week event, squash fans will now be able to enjoy a yearlong schedule of squash at Drexel University. Not just for one team, but a pair, as both the men and women will be kicking off 2011-12 squash campaigns.
The inaugural seasons commence in less than a week, with the men’s team opening their season Oct. 27 and the women’s team kicking things off Oct. 26, marking the official beginning of the Drexel squash era. It’s an era that took a long process to reach this point.
Athletic Director Eric Zillmer has worked toward the creation of varsity squash teams for roughly 10 years now, mostly by promoting the sport throughout the campus and community. In addition to his work, there are a number of things we can point to and identify as keys to arriving at the beginning of this era: everything from the success of the club squash teams to President John A. Fry’s support to the hard work and push to get to this point by everyone, especially Zillmer.
But with all of this, one thing is clear: Drexel is ready for the start of this new era, and it appears it is set to embrace it. That was especially evident the first week of October when the public’s support and excitement for squash in the Philadelphia area was on display for the first time at the U.S. Open. The daily attendance for the event averaged about 700 to 1,000 people.
That excitement is the reason that men and women’s head coach John White joined the Drexel athletics staff to be at the helm for both teams. The Queensland, Australia native comes from a four-year stint at Franklin and Marshall University. He was very successful there during his tenure, leaving the position with the men’s team ranked eighth overall in the nation.
Having that success, he must have needed a good reason to leave. His acceptance of the position is a demonstration of squash growing in Philadelphia, and it confirms that the excitement for the sport is legitimate. It’s the ideal place to grow a program.
“Having the opportunity to start my own program and to work in Philadelphia, where squash is very popular, interested me the most,” White said.
A former top-ranked player in the world, White played in a qualifying match in the Open, where he was able to notice the excitement on campus during the weeklong event.
“[Drexel’s staff members] were all very excited to work and be part of a major championship on the squash tour,” he said.
Having played host to the U.S. Open only a few weeks ago, the Drexel community, as well as the entire Philadelphia community, will look to carry momentum into the squash season as their excitement and interest toward the sport is still high on the heels of the national event.
It was the perfect launching pad for what will be the takeoff point this upcoming season, as everyone is still in “squash mode” with the tournament still fresh in their minds. White agreed that it was a great benefit for the tournament to take place weeks before the new squash era begins.
“Hosting the U.S. Open on Drexel’s campus was a great start and boost to our new varsity squash program,” White said. “Everyone is still talking about the event and planning to make it bigger and better for the next two years.”
Drexel is, of course, scheduled to host the U.S. Open for the next two years.
As for the scheduled games for this season, Drexel’s slate of games only adds to the intrigue and excitement for both the men’s and women’s squads. Each team begins its history of Drexel squash the same way — with road dates against Haverford, with the women being the first to officially commence Drexel squash Oct. 26 and the men following them in play the next day. It’ll be the first of two games in the Drexel-Haverford season series, with each team set to meet at each other’s home facilities.
Interestingly, Haverford will also be able to witness another inaugural event in Drexel squash history as the opponent: the first home game on Drexel Squash Courts. Following the same set-up as the start of the season, the women’s team will open the home schedule on Feb. 1, with the men’s team in action Feb 2.
Haverford sets up an interesting and tough matchup for the two squads, being separated by only seven spots in the national rankings. Drexel is ranked at No. 46 going into the year with Haverford checking in at No. 39. White expects a tough matchup. There will be nothing like a tough, closely played matchup out of the gate to peak the interest in the teams going forward with the season.
In between the Haverford matchups for both sides, the two teams’ schedules are very similar. Following their season-opening matches, each team will head south for the first two weekends of November for a slew of games in Annapolis, Md. The men will play six total matchups there, Nov. 5, 12 and 13.The women, with a pair of matchups Nov. 5 and 12, will play four games. Among the scheduled opponents for the two teams that weekend will be common matches against George Washington and Johns Hopkins.
The two teams will also have common schedules for two weekend tournaments late in the season: The Bates Round Robin (Jan. 27-29), and to close out the season, the College Squash Association Individual Championships (March 2-4). Both teams also will meet the University of Pennsylvania down the street Nov. 30.
Those many common matches will be surrounded on each team’s schedule with a few other matches, giving each team some uniqueness to their schedules. That would not prevent them from being equally as intriguing as they roll through their inaugural seasons, experiencing many “firsts” together.
The dynamic of the teams and their compilation is intriguing itself. Each roster contains an interesting mix of fresh talent, each bringing something new to the table. White is able to find a lot of quality attributes in his new rosters.
“Every player has their own unique style and attitude that brings that a little extra to the team,” he explained.
The players do bring something to the team, but does being a part of this team bring something to the players? It’s quite possible. It’s realistic to think the players might be feeling some sort of pressure being on the inaugural squash team at Drexel, a team that took a lot of campaigning to exist. They are representing a number of people who pushed for squash to come to Drexel and will look to maintain the level of interest and excitement to justify it. Being the first team for the first season, all eyes will be on them for first impressions. First impressions do tend to be packed with pressure.
But are the players feeling any pressure that the situation, and maybe even the excitement, could be putting on them? White doesn’t think so, not unless they make themselves think that way.
“The only added pressure the players have is the pressure they put on themselves,” he explained. “That is the biggest pressure a player has to overcome.”
So are there any expectations for these teams? Being inaugural teams, it’s obviously hard to say. There is no history to align this team with for comparison, no team from last year to monitor growth or decline. Other than preseason rankings, there isn’t much to gauge with these teams and their on-the-court performances.
White’s expectations for his players are simple: just play your best.
“My expectations from both teams are to just go out there and do their best whether playing at the No. 1 or 10 spot,” he said.
As we look ahead to preview the 2011-12 inaugural squash season, the reality is that we really can’t have any on-the-court expectations for this team’s performance. We’re not in any position to go up and down the schedule and make any NFL-style win/loss picks. What we can expect is an exciting season. After all, it’s the start of a new era — one set to be embraced.