The Court Supremes
Led by an obsessive coach and loaded with international talent, the Trinity College squash team has not lost in almost 10 years, building the longest winning streak in college sports history
Posted: Tuesday February 5, 2008 12:27PM; Updated: Tuesday February 5, 2008 12:30PM
The New England dusk, dank and gloomy, was spreading over the Trinity College campus, a preppy haven in a working-class section of Hartford. In dribs and drabs, students, hundreds of them, were making their way down the hill and into the Ferris Athletic Center. There's no boulevard of restaurants around Trinity. No Barnes & Noble. No Starbucks. What there is is squash.
Princeton was in the house, and the longest winning streak in the history of collegiate sports -- 176 team matches -- was on the line. Trinity had not lost since Feb. 22, 1998, to Harvard, but if any team could beat the Bantams, it was Princeton.
The Tigers, in their spiffy blue warmup suits, looked ready. They were standing on center court, waiting for the team introductions, and the Trinity coach was scrambling around, trying to find his guys. "They're waiting for us," Paul Assaiante called out. "They're waiting."
The 55-year-old Assaiante (pronounced ah-see-ON-tay) doesn't fool himself. Yes, his team, thanks to a stream of foreign talent, has won nine straight national championships. But that streak doesn't make him John Wooden or Bud Wilkinson or even Geno Auriemma. Assaiante coaches squash. A couple of years ago he threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park. He bounced it in, and as he came off the field somebody yelled, "What the f--- is squash?"
Squash, in the U.S., is a sweaty, intense winter sport dominated by Type A personalities and popular at boarding schools, in the Ivy League and at private clubs. You play it in a cramped box with a smaller, thinner version of a tennis racket and a ball that barely bounces. The game's U.S. demographics have started to change, in part because squash altruists have built public courts in North Philadelphia, the South Bronx and other places way off the cocktail-party circuit. The day may come when the squash rosters at Yale and Dartmouth and Williams have kids from the inner city and the game sheds some of its John Cheever image.
For Assaiante, who grew up in the South Bronx and never touched a squash racket until he was 27, that day can't come too soon. In the meantime he combs the Internet and works the phone (he has no recruiting budget) to find talent from Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Sweden and other countries where squash is part of the mainstream sporting culture. For the Princeton match, on the last Wednesday in January, Trinity's nine-man lineup included not a single American, and the players ranged in age from 18 to 23. One Bantam had played professionally. Two had come to the U.S. speaking halting English. Four had been admitted only weeks earlier. But they had all been vetted by the NCAA.
Trinity, which was founded in 1823, has no religious affiliation, and the squash team has been a religious melting pot, with Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and atheists. A Division III school that does not offer athletic scholarships, Trinity graduates nearly all of its athletes. The squash players are polite, engaging and earnest. On a team trip to Philadelphia to play Penn last month, Simba Muhwati, a co-captain from Zimbabwe, said, "How can you hate another human being?" Before long the talk returned to . . . you can guess. It's college.
1 of 2