David Ryan was never supposed to win the 2018 College Squash Association (CSA) national individual championship. Nor was he supposed to be in the finals, semifinals, quarterfinals, or even the opening round.
Coming into the weekend, he was ranked 18th in the country and only secured his spot by virtue of other players dropping from the season’s last competition. But on a weekend where six Harvard athletes made it to the national semifinals, the Dublin native saved two championship points to capture the 36th men’s title in program history with a 12-10 fifth-game victory.
If the title wasn’t enough, the journey to his championship made the run all the sweeter. Seeded 14th in the bracket, Harvard’s co-captain began his run by dispatching Penn’s No. 1 Andrew Douglas in four games before barreling through Dartmouth top-seed Alvin Heumann in straight games.
This set up a matchup against teammate, but now opponent, Timmy Brownell in the semifinal. After trading the first four games in a tight contest, Ryan was able to escape to final game, 11-7, to grab a spot in the final against top overall seed and former occupant of the pro circuit, Trinity’s Kush Kumar.
“It was great having the four Harvard boys down there,” Ryan said. “Three of us got to the semifinals, which is a great achievement, in general, for all of us as a team, especially after the disappointment of last weekend when we got picked to the post by Trinity in the team championship final.”
The whole weekend was new territory for Ryan. Besides Brownell, he had never played any of the other three.
“I was inexperienced going in against these guys, but the thing was that they also hadn’t played me, so they didn’t really know what to expect,” Ryan said. “Maybe I got them a little bit nervous, when it came down to it.”
On Sunday, at the George Washington University courts in the nation’s capital, Ryan triggered the upset alarm by winning the first, and then the second game of the national final, by relatively easy margins. If Kumar—the overwhelming favorite—was rattled, it was hard to see as he took the third and fourth games in decisive fashion. Ryan’s season and career, along with one last shot at glory, came down to one final game to 11.
The two kept each other in check early in the game, but Kumar began to pull away and arrived at the precipice of a national championship leading 10-8. The Bantam needed just just one more point to win it all, but that never came.
“I was a couple of match balls down and I was just in that sort of mindset that I really didn’t want to lose, no matter what,” Ryan said. “I was going to leave it all out there. It’s my last ever college squash match, probably squash match in general.”
Ryan won four straight points, including two title-saving strokes, to flip the script.
The pro-turned-freshman Kumar still has three more chances at an individual title, along with the team national championship already in his pocket after Trinity’s home victory against Harvard. Meanwhile, Ryan can graduate with a personal accolade that he hardly knew was possible to win.
This is the second year in a row that Harvard has come away with an individual national championship from a player that did not play primarily on the top rung of the ladder. Last season, then-freshman Gina Kennedy came away with a national title after beating top-seeded Reeham Sedky.
Kennedy could hardly claim the role of an underdog this year in the singles championship, despite being ranked second behind the Penn junior, as she looked to defend her title. Nor could the rest of the Harvard women’s team stay away from the spotlight, who after sweeping the team national championship 9-0 against Trinity, traveled eight of its top players to the tournament and served as a model of performance and consistency.
“We’re such a small team so it was so important to stay injury-free and I think the team did that so well,” said co-captain Sue Ann Yong.
After the end of Friday’s action, it was easy to be impressed by Harvard’s results across the two competition divisions. Both the men and women were able to place three players in the championship semifinals, and therefore each have one representative in the final.
But while it was surprising to see three Cambridge men in the semifinal, the chances of a national championship had to look better for the three four-time defending national championship Harvard women, fresh off an undefeated season. The match-ups were compelling and the history real. Longtime star junior Sabrina Sobhy had a Saturday date against Sedky, with a possible championship rematch looming a day later with Kennedy and “The Hammer,” or a glorified challenged match to decide the national title.
“It was nice because I think most people had different matches than they did during the regular season, so they were playing different people and we could still support each other,” Yong said.
Sedky ended up easily dispatching Sobhy in straight games, while Kennedy warded off teammate, classmate, and fellow British national Amelia Henley in five games. Similarities abounded during the weekend—Henley was trying to channel some of her own No. 4 slot magic to match Ryan. But Kennedy, who, like Ryan, won the first two games in the national final last year as a heavy underdog, ended back up in the championship game.
So the rematch began, Penn’s top-ranked against Harvard’s top-ranked. The two ended up in a draw after two games, but Sedky pulled away in the next two games. The final score (3-1) and the disappointment flipped. But a new feeling creep in for the Penn junior—relief. For three years, Sedky had made the individual national finals. The first two times she lost, but on Sunday she finally won.
If there’s a natural equilibrium in the world, the past three weeks of squash has presented strong evidence in favor of such an idea. The Harvard women won the team title, but then lost out on a season two-peat, although Yong did win her B division final. The Harvard men fell against to Trinity, but then had co-captain Ryan come out on top against Trinity’s top player. There’s been disappointment, but for Coach Mike Way, he has coached national champions on two teams this season. And for David Ryan, a title for a lifetime.
—Staff writer William Quan can be reached at email@example.com.