With 13 national titles and the longest win streak in college sports history, the Trinity men’s squash team has the most impressive college sports dynasty that no one outside of the college squash community knows about. “The Streak,” as it has come to be known, only gained significant national recognition when Yale defeated Trinity in January with a 5-4 win, ending Trinity’s 13-year, 252-game run.
Even if you have heard about Trinity squash, you would probably be surprised to know that 15 years ago, Trinity’s squash program was not even close to attaining such a historic win streak—that is, until Trinity coach Paul Assaiante began looking overseas for new recruits. Coach Assaiante’s insight into the importance of recruiting internationally has undoubtedly shaped the course of college squash. International recruits have come to dominate the best teams in the country, including the Ivy League.
When Yale took down Trinity for its first loss since 1998, 18 players between the two teams hailed from 12 different countries, including India, Mexico, Sweden, South Africa, and El Salvador.
What does this mean for the Light Blue’s squash program? Still in its first few years as a varsity sport, Columbia squash has made significant strides toward the top of the league. The women’s team has moved up 13 spots in the national rankings in the last two years, and both the men’s and women’s sides were given most-improved awards after the 2010-2011 season. Despite the progress, Columbia remains one of the only teams in the Ivy League without a top-10 national ranking.
Both men’s head coach Jacques Swanepoel and women’s head coach Kelsey Engman believe that the future of the Columbia squash program lies abroad.
“International recruiting is essential to the program’s success,” Swanepoel said.
Engman agreed. “If you look at the other Ivies, their lineups are dominated by international recruits, especially at the top of their ladders,” she said. “In order to compete with them, we will need to bring in more international players.”
Both coaches have already invested considerable time and effort into global outreach. “We do travel to see them,” Engman said on the process of contacting recruits. “I went to the British Junior Open last year and saw some really good players. They also travel over here to play in some of our tournaments, especially when they are interested in going to college in the United States.”
Current international recruits on both teams have already made considerable contributions to the squash program. Freshman and top seed Ramit Tandon is the only international recruit on the men’s team. A former No. 1-ranked Indian Junior player who led his team to a gold medal at last year’s Asian Junior Team Squash Championship, Tandon has had an exceptional season for the Lions. Most recently, he finished as the runner-up in the 2012 CSA Individual Championship.
“Ramit’s contribution is massive. We can go into most of our matches almost being guaranteed at least one win. It also pushes the entire team down one spot in the ladder, which makes us stronger in every position,” Swanepoel said of Tandon.
Freshman and No. 6 seed Dheeya Somaiya, the only international recruit on the women’s side, has also been a major player for the Lions since coming to Columbia from India.
Despite the squash program’s recent progress in international recruiting, logistical issues may have slowed its development. Difficulties with standardized testing scores and providing financial aid for international students have made it challenging for coaches to get players through the admissions process.
“We certainly have lost people because they didn’t have the scores, and that is frustrating because they are really smart kids who could do well at Columbia,” Engman said. “They just don’t always have the same prep that U.S. kids do.”
Swanepoel added that money is often a problem.
“There is limited financial aid for international students here at Columbia, so many times we have to turn incredible athletes away because we can’t offer them the necessary aid,” he said.
In spite of these setbacks, Columbia still has many ways of drawing international recruits. When asked what the major incentive was for coming to play for Columbia, Tandon identified both access to a Columbia education and the ability to play among many professional squash players in New York as contributing factors.
According to Engman, the number of international recruits already on a college team is a major factor for prospective international students when considering attending an institution.
“The more recruits we bring in, the more appealing the program is. Recruits want to be on a team that’s diverse,” Engman said. “I know that having Ramit and Deehya on the team has given us great contacts with the Indian juniors.”
The squash program’s strong sense of community has made Tandon’s transition to U.S. squash an easy one.
“They have been great,” Tandon said. “When you play internationally, the teams are usually only three or four players. But here we have 15 boys and 10 girls, so it’s a huge team and I love playing with them. We really support each other.”
The coaches are not the only ones interested in making squash a stronger sport both in the U.S. and worldwide. Tandon has shown a vested interest in drawing attention to his sport, recently playing in the Squash World Cup in an Indian shopping mall to help promote squash and increase its popularity.
“It was the first sport played in a shopping mall in India,” Tandon said. “The World Squash Federation is trying to increase squash’s popularity and get squash into the Olympics. Even here there is an annual tournament at Grand Central Station that I played at recently.”
Although Columbia squash is still in the beginning stages of establishing a strong international recruitment program, Somaiya and Tandon have forged a path, making the next wave of recruits more eager to hear about Columbia squash. It will certainly take time to bring in more high-caliber international recruits, but the Light Blue is well on its way to achieving a squash program with an even mix of U.S. juniors and players from abroad.