What's On My Mind: Last Bear Standing
by A.J. Kohlhepp

February 13, 2014

Having just returned from the U.S. High School National Championships in Philadelphia, I come away with a number of observations and questions that squash fans might enjoy reading.  To wit….Even the clearest of rules can sometimes get confusing when they run into real life. Heroic actions and epic scenes are not always played out on center stage.  While the road to failure is paved with “no ways,” the greatest adventures always start with someone saying “yes.”

To say that things are doubtful at the moment is to understate just how ambiguous the state of affairs and how improbable the odds for one particular competitor.  This much we know for sure: we are down 9-2 in the fifth game of our final match at the U.S. High School Team Championships, and the Bear on court is as sick as a dog, and the Beaver she faces is just about ready to head home with a victory. 

The player we are cheering for, a senior and three-year team member, had doubts about coming on the trip from the very moment we started talking about “nationals.”  She was tired after a long January at boarding school, nervous about keeping up with her academic obligations, and sad about missing a formal dinner/dance on the weekend of the event.  After repeated conversations with me, her teammates, her advisor, her parents and anybody else who might proffer an opinion, she had finally relented and signed on.  The day we were due to leave, however, she started to feel a cold coming on, yet she decided to simply grin and bear it.  Extra tissues, extra orange juice and extra cold medicine laid in for the duration, we had hit the road to Philadelphia.

From a squash perspective, our tournament had gone well to that point.  The girls, led by five seasoned seniors, had secured a strong victory in the opening round against Portsmouth Abbey (RI), then come up just a hair short in a bid for the semifinals, dropping a 4-3 match to Darien High School (CT).  The rebound effort against Mary Institute – Country Day School (MO) saw Berkshire in dominant form once again, cruising to a 5-2 win with both losses coming in five tough games.  A Saturday night on the town with the Berkshire boys’ team, competing in the same event, and a good night’s sleep got the Bears to the cusp of their last challenge.

The final contest found Berkshire facing Brearley (NY), green-clad Bears lining up to take on maroon Beavers.  Berkshire’s #7 Chelsea, a late substitute who valiantly volunteered to fill a teammate’s spot on te weekend, fell in five, while #2 Olivia grabbed victory in three. #3 Clementina followed Silverman on the first court and notched a similarly secure victory to put Berkshire on top, while #5 Edeline looked to be following an arduous path of her own.  At a tense moment in the fourth game, Edeline dug a ball off the back wall that glanced off of her opponent’s head. The referee deemed that the ball lacked velocity to make it to the front wall, awarding the point to Brearley. Rendering this decision all the more piquant was the fact that the competitors teammate was serving as referee, as is the case in all high school matches, with one player refing and her opponent marking.  (Although U.S. Squash stipulates that all participants in the event must pass the online referee exam, our experience at nationals suggests wide disparities in terms of the mastery and application of the rules.  My own team was actually commended and congratulated by opposing parents for making calls honestly and accurately, which struck me as a lovely but strange note. [Were the parents expecting the girls to call it wrong, and on purpose?!])  The Brearley competitor played on for several points, then expressed doubt about her fitness to continue and, stepping off of the court, initiated a full concussion protocol on the part of the on-site athletic trainer.

This is where things got really interesting, and where the letter of the law proved little bulwark against the madness of the moment.  At the time of the “injury,” the Brearley player had impeded her opponent’s ability to hit to the front wall, yet the Berkshire player took a swing at a ball she should have paused on, making this a fairly straightforward instance of “contributed injury.”  Newly revised rule assumes an injured player who is able to return, while current concussion protocols all but render that rule inapplicable in this instance. If the trainer would not allow a potentially concussed player to continue play, she couldn’t actually choose to return to the court.  This is a pretty sticky ruling around which to determine a match, needless to say.
Uncertain at that juncture whether the #5 contest would continue, both teams forged on.  Our #1, Michaelann, fell in three games, which evened the match tally at two each.  Looking for clarity, Berkshire sent forth two of its most seasoned warriors.  #6 Serena dropped a tight first frame, fumed at the water fountain, revised her negative mindset and reversed the outcome in the second game, then claimed the third by a more comfortable margin, and finally squeaked by 12-10 in the fourth.  3-2 lead for the Bears, with one to play and one in doubt. 

Like all of her teammates, #4 Allie had played hard all weekend, winning Friday afternoon, Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon in straight games but seemingly getting sicker by the match.  By Sunday morning, she could barely get out of bed.  A cursory warm-up got our last Bear as ready as she would ever be, and she came out swinging to take the first game handily.  My advice between games was simple: keep up the pressure and destroy her will to compete.  Not only was my good guidance ineffective, it seemed to backfire, for the Beaver bit back with a vengeance to even things at one each.  Allie, alternating between tissues and gasps after the second frame, simply laughed when we recalled the sagely wisdom that I had offered her a game ago.  Then she went back out and won the third in convincing fashion, leading all observers to assume the end was near.

But Brearley would not go gentle into that good Philadelphia afternoon and roared back to even things again.  “You got this,” I reassured Allie as she came off for water before the fifth, but her look suggested anything but confidence.  The final frame started badly for the Bear and just kept getting worse, and before long our senior found herself in a 9-2 hole.  And this is where we came into this tale.

“Come on, Allie,” exhort her teammates, as her opponent’s supporters urge her in an equally boisterous manner to finish things off.  Taking a deep breath, wiping her hand on the side wall and raising her familiar blue Dunlop for the return, Allie waits.  Then she strikes, and scrambles, and sniffles, and slugs her way back into the match.

Ripping good lengths from both sides and punctuating them with cross-courts – she is far too nervous and exhausted to attempt a drop at this juncture – Allie climbs back into it, winning back a handful of points before facing the first match ball at 10-7.  Yet she hangs on.  Another point for Berkshire, then a contested let, then another point for Berkshire, and another, and we are all square. 10-10 in the fifth game of the seventh match of our last day at the national championships. 

The worthy opponent from Brearley, sensing that she is on the wrong end of history, puts together strong points in two of the next three, earning herself two more match balls, but she cannot convert.  Allie finally serves for the match, and the clincher for the team competition, at 13-12, and rips a hard, low, dying cross-court that sends her wrong-footed opponent lunging in desperation. It is not to be for Brearley.  The comeback is complete, the match status is resolved, and this athlete’s place in the small pantheon of Berkshire racquet history is assured.  

After a handshake with her opponent and the Brearley coaches, Allie receives hugs and high fives from her teammates and coach (who quickly retire to the bathroom to wash their hands).  Then she sits down on a simple blue bench amidst the whitewashed walls at the beautiful Springside School squash facility,  touch and go whether she will get back up anytime soon.  But she does get up, once again, and makes it to the van, where it is instantaneously and universally deemed appropriate (not to mention hygienic) for Allie to claim the ceremonial shotgun position, wherein she sits slumped and sniffling for the next four hours.  Her parents meet us at a roadside motel on Route 22 just outside of Brewster, NY, and quickly convey her home to bed.  When I check in at noon the next day, she is still sleeping, and the only thing prompting her mother to wake her at all is a doctor’s appointment at 1:30.

You might have wondered along the way what was at stake here, and the answer is not so very much.  Neither team was in the hunt for the national championship in any traditional sense of the term, as we competed all weekend long in the fourth division; even this match in particular would separate only the fifth and sixth place positions in our bracket of the massive event (said to be the world’s largest squash tournament, with more than sixty girls’ and nearly one hundred boys’ teams entered).  In a certain sense, it wasn’t even the climax of our season, for we end the winter campaign with a trip to the New England Interscholastics at the end of February. Yet both players, and both teams, invested all they had into this moment in pursuit of a collective goal: victory. 

For us, we got a great lesson in the possibilities of saying “yes.”  Just because we commit to something doesn’t guarantee that we will succeed, but a failure to commit almost always leads to failure.  If I have imparted any wisdom to my players in the last dozen winters, I suspect it is this:  you have zero percent chance of hitting a ball you don’t swing it.  Just say yes.  Give it a rip.  You may be amazed by what you can accomplish.  And on one crazy Sunday in Philadelphia, we got to see what a reeling Bear could do when she refused to let “no” into her vocabulary.

photo courtesy A.J. Kohlhepp

About the Author: A.J. Kohlhepp first picked up a squash racquet at Trinity College (before the Bantams’ perennial championships commenced).

An English teacher by trade, he has coached boys’ and girls’ squash over the past dozen years in addition to various other duties at Berkshire School (Massachusetts USA), where he resides about 100 meters from the squash courts, with his wife (a real writer) and children (beginning squashers).

What's On My Mind is a column by rotating writers.
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