A History Of Yale Squash During The Dave Talbott Coaching Era   
By Rob Dinerman

Editor's Note: This article was written in early March 2002 as the centerpiece of the S. L. Green Program, since Yale was hosting the tournament that year. At the time, Dave Talbott was finishing off his 19th season as the Yale men's head coach. Beginning with the 2004-05 season, Talbott has been both the men's and women's head coach and is now in the midst of his 31st year at Yale.

   March 10, 2002
- By the end of the 2002-03 season, Yale Men’s Head Squash Coach Dave Talbott will have completed his 20th year at the Eli helm. During his 19 seasons so far, his teams have won more than 230 matches while losing fewer than 60, and he has produced 17 all-Ivy selections (many of whom have achieved this distinction multiple times), while guiding the 1988-89 and 1989-90 squads to the Ivy League and National Intercollegiate Squash Racquets Association (NISRA) championships. His best year and only undefeated season came in 1989-90, when captain Cyrus Mehta and No. 1 John Musto led their teammates to an 18-0 slate highlighted by a thrilling 5-4 victory at the Payne Whitney Gymnasium over Harvard that simultaneously clinched the NISRA crown and at long last brought to an end the Crimson’s 28-year dual-meet winning streak over Yale. Talbott’s many accomplishments as a coach are even more noteworthy in light of both the several major court facility expansions that he helped bring about and the high degree of success he also enjoyed throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s on the pro hardball tour of the World Professional Squash Association (WPSA), where he spent several years ranked in the top 15 and recorded wins over some of the best players in the game.

   Appointed successor to outgoing coach Steve Gurney in August 1983, just a few weeks before the fall semester began, Talbott left his position as head pro at the Detroit Athletic Club after five enjoyable years there to launch what the Yale Athletic Department hoped would be a resurgence of the program, which had not won an Intercollegiate team championship since 1961, when the Elis had had their last undefeated season and conquered Harvard for the final time. Superstar Victor Wagner, who had won the Intercollegiate Individual championship as a junior, had just graduated, leaving an obvious hole at the top of the lineup, and the team suffered for several seasons from lack of depth, though by the end of Talbott’s first year junior Will Carlin and especially sophomore Huge Labossier were already starting to emerge as standout college players.

   Realizing from very early on that there was a need to enhance Yale’s heretofore understated profile on the squash map, Talbott immediately in the fall of 1983 inaugurated the Yale Open as an early-season tournament on the USSRA schedule that would bring highly ranked players to Payne Whitney and give his own varsity valuable match experience against them. He also had his younger brother Mark, who was by then in the second year of a decade-long run as the top player in North America and the greatest American player in squash history, visit the varsity during its late-afternoon practice sessions and play with the team members, which had an understandably salutary effect on their games. Talbott even arranged to have Yale host a WPSA ranking tourney for several years as part of the Yale Open weekend, and he and Gurney oversaw a renovation and expansion of the courts, by the end of which Yale had arguably the premier squash facility in the nation. His own well-known prowess as a solid WPSA player benefited him in this undertaking, as did his personable and extroverted nature and Mark’s growing fame.


   By the third season of Talbott’s tenure, his efforts had begun to show some genuine signs of the glory that awaited the program he was heading. Yale went 11-3 during that 1985-86 season, which was highlighted by the remarkable mid-season surge of Labossier, the Bulldog captain that year, who rocketed into stardom by capturing the prestigious William White Invitational at the fabled Merion Cricket Club, then greatly exceeded even that breakthrough by upsetting, sequentially, Jeff Stanley and Kenton Jernigan, the No. 1 players at arch-rivals Princeton and Harvard respectively, in the semis and final of the U. S. Nationals at the University Club Of New York, which he thereby became the first-ever Yalie to win while still an undergraduate. Labossier’s overtime-in-the-fourth triumph over three-time defending champion Jernigan, who hit tins on the last two points of that 18-16 tiebreaker, was an enormous achievement, and when the two met a few weeks later in New Haven at the No. 1 position of the Yale-Harvard dual meet, the packed gallery witnessed yet another electrifying performance, with Labossier going up two games to love before a prideful Jernigan finished off his extraordinary intercollegiate career by rallying to win in five, accentuating this comeback by roaring to his third intercollegiate individual crown and thus launching an outstanding WPSA professional career that culminated in the early 1990’s with titles in the ’91 WPSA Championships and the ’92 S. L. Green tourney.

   For all the marquee appeal implicit in a mere regular-season college match featuring No. 1 players who just weeks earlier had met in the final of the U. S. Nationals, the Jernigan-Labossier match was more for bragging rights than anything else, as the powerful Crimson squad won eight of the nine matches that evening and was in the midst of a run of six straight undefeated seasons. But during that time on several fronts the groundwork was quietly being laid for the Yale championships that were to follow. The first of these had already occurred prior to that 1985-86 season when the No. 1 ranked 18-and-under junior Tom Clayton committed to attend Yale. Both he and the fifth-ranked junior Eric Wohlgemuth, Clayton’s club-mate in  the formidable junior program, were freshmen of the varsity headed by Labossier, and both would play major roles in Yale’s ascent. This marked the first time that Coach Talbott had convinced the nation’s top-ranked junior to go to Yale, an important breakthrough that would be repeated several times in the years to come.

   Even more importantly, the decision of these two Heights Casino products to select Yale rather than its Ivy League rivals wound up having a substantial “filter down” impact on younger members of this deservedly highly-regarded program, a substantial number of whom would follow in their footsteps in a phenomenon that became almost self-generating after a few years. The very next year saw the No. 1 ranked junior Alex Dean also choose Yale, as did his Heights Casino contemporary James (Tuffy) Kingsbury, both of whom would prove to be indispensable contributors to the undefeated championship 1989-90 season. By Talbott’s sixth year, more than half of the starting nine could point to the elegant red-brick three-story building at the end of Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights as their squash stomping ground. Another major element to the burgeoning Yale program was added with the arrival in the fall of 1986 of Cyrus Mehta, the first India-born star to pick Yale after many of his countrymen had invariably gone to Harvard, a seemingly irreversible trend that had begun with three-time Intercollegiate and two-time national champion Anil Nayar in the late 1960’s and included Mehta’s Bombay contemporaries Darius and Farokh Pandole among many others.

   Mehta, Dean and Kingsbury would eventually be joined as seniors during the 1989-90 campaign by classmates Chris Hunt and Jeff Hoerle, both of whom entered the program as unheralded freshmen, developed their games as members of the junior varsity, worked relentlessly in practice throughout mostly anonymous careers and, heart-warmingly, emerged as senior to provide the crucial depth needed to get the Bulldogs over the top. Even as early as the 1986-87 season, the loss of Labossier and fellow all-Ivy Ming Tsai was more than counter-balanced by the play of sophomores Clayton and Wohlgemuth and freshmen Mehta, Dean and Kinsgbury. The team again went 11-3 and gave Talbott his first win over Princeton, a wild affair at Payne Whitney that saw one Princeton player defaulted for punching the lenses of his eyewear out in violation of the eye-guard rule (an infraction witnesses by his Yale opponent’s girlfriend, who promptly notified Coach Talbott) and that went down to simultaneous-match-point in the No. 7 match, the last one of the day, at which crisis juncture senior Bill Barker had a well-earned moment of glory when he dove headlong for an apparent Tiger winner and got just enough of his racquet of the ball to nudge it barely above the tin for a fluke winner.

   This exhilarating outcome was, however, nullified by a 5-4 loss to Ivy rival Penn, as well as more clear-cut defeats at the hands of Franklin & Marshall and Harvard, which whitewashed the Elis 9-0 in Cambridge and went on to yet another championship. Yale’s enhanced depth aside, the Elis desperately needed a true star at the top, and the following fall they would get one when two time New England Interschols champion John Musto, a New Haven native himself whose father David was a professor on the Yale faculty and who was introduced to squash as an under-sized eleven-year-old child on the New Haven Lawn Club and Yale University courts, took his relentlessly attacking game and USSRA No. 1 18-and-under ranking to Yale.

   Even as a youngster hitting alone or with then-Yale coach Steve Gurney at 7:30 AM on the deserted Yale courts (as he did virtually every morning before going to his grade school), Musto had a vision of himself winning the deciding match at the No. 1 position against Harvard, an eerily prescient phenomenon that proves for the umpteenth time that life is often stranger than fiction. When he arrived on campus in the fall of 1987, he carried with him a burning desire to see Harvard’s long domination over Yale terminated before his intercollegiate career was over. He boldly voiced this sentiment at a preseason gathering early in his freshman year, an unusually forward act for someone so new to the college scene, and then fired the first salvo himself in the semis of the late-October Yale Open when he straight-gamed one of the symbols of the Crimson dynasty, their captain Russ Ball, whose initial confidence gradually gave way to concern and eventually panic in the face of Musto’s merciless attack.

   Musto would lose the ensuing final that afternoon to Ball’s teammate Darius Pandole, and Yale would drop close 6-3 decisions to Princeton and Harvard that winter, but their 11-2 record and third-place finish in the college team rankings were both high-water marks to that point of Talbott’s tenure. That 1987-88 campaign also marked the start of a remarkable run for the Bulldogs, who would never lose more than two matches in any of the seven final seasons of hardball intercollegiate play, which ended with the 1993-94 season; during that seven-year period, the Elis compiled a staggering record of 108-9, were 17-0 in 1989-90 and had three other seasons (’89, ’92 and ’94) in which their only loss was to Harvard.


   By the following year, when top-ranked junior Garrett Frank (another Heights Casino alumnus), joined the Yale lineup, it looked like the Elis were set for an undefeated season. Seniors Clayton and Wohlgemuth were stabilizing the middle of the order, while Musto posted four straight wins that season over Princeton No. 1 and two-time Intercollegiate champion Jeff Stanley, with the third of those outcomes keying a dominant 7-2 home rout of the Tigers, who a few weeks earlier had ended Harvard’s six-year undefeated skein in no-nonsense 8-1 fashion. This set of results put Yale in the rare position of entering the end-of-season showdown with the Crimson as a heavy favorite to complete an undefeated season, end the galling 27-match losing streak to its arch-rival and clinch the Intercollegiate regular-season title for the first time in 29 years.

   The Yale convoy that rolled up the Massachusetts Turnpike to northern New England on the frigid afternoon of February 22nd was brimming with confidence perhaps to excess. The squad was accompanied by several busloads of fans, friends and supporters who badly wanted to be on hand to witness the seemingly certain transfer of power from the longtime league incumbent to the finally more talented insurgent, pervading the traveling caravan with the enthusiasm of a joyous coronation rather than what everyone should have realized would instead by a stern competition in a hostile setting in which so many bad outcomes had befallen Yale teams for decades past. The still-powerful Harvard team was stocked with talent and had no intention of playing the role of compliant foil to a Yale celebration, least of all on their cherished turf. And the Crimson players had a galvanizing motivation of their own: their head coach, Dave Fish, was retiring from that position that spring after 13 title-filled seasons, in none of which his teams had lost to Yale, and his players desperately wanted to send their revered coach out on a winning note.

       In the aftermath of the stunning 6-3 defeat they suffered that wayward full-moon evening, various Yalies had varying views on its cause. Some players mentioned the festive afternoon mood and its disquieting contrast to the worried silence in their locker room immediately before the matches began. Others pointed to the intensity and volume of the noise that emanated from the packed and raucously pro-Harvard crowd, which sensed their potential impact right from the start and bellowed their approval as the unexpected rout was unfolding. Recalling that misadventurous night many years later, Coach Talbott himself lamented the fact that his team arrived in Cambridge so early that the players had more than an hour to kill after their pre-match practice session had ended and lost an edge they would never regain while catching a post-practice nap on the team bus.

    Cambridge karma, scheduling miscue or perfect storm, a determined and inspired Harvard squad turned the aging mausoleum that was Hemenway Gymnasium into an infernal snake-pit in which Yale’s year-long hopes for an undefeated season were destroyed in three torrid hours of madness and mayhem. With the “evens” on first, Israeli-born Jonny Kaye got the meet started with a decisive straight-game victory at No. 4 over the favored Alex Dean (reversing their outcome of a few months earlier in an invitational tournament) and the momentum he thereby generated would never be quelled. At Nos. 6 and 8, Harvard got crucial five-game wins from George Polsky over Erik Wohlgemuth and from Jon Masland over Tuffy Kingsbury, and when Crimson freshman Faroukh Pandole out-played Yale captain Tom Clayton at No. 3 in the first of the “odd” matches, Harvard was suddenly just one win away from the five that it needed.

    Yale No. 1 John Musto, who had played brilliantly the weekend before in reaching the semis of the U. S. Nationals, was ironically undone by the very magnitude of this performance, which left him so depleted for his match with Jonny Bernheimer just three days later that by early in the third game, having by a single point (a perfect Bernheimer three-wall) dropped a second-set tiebreaker the winning of which would have given him a two games to love lead, he was completely exhausted. Bernheimer’s four-game first-ever win over Musto, coming atop the Kaye victory and the trio of Crimson wins in the middle of the lineup, sealed the team outcome (thereby giving Harvard a share as well of the Ivy League title, which it had won outright the prior six years), which an understandably elated Bernheimer punctuated by repeatedly jumping for joy and brandishing his fist on court in front of a delirious crowd which included his father, Lenny, a recent USSRA President and many-times USSRA age-group champion who had just surrendered his National 45-and-over title to Jay Nelson a few days earlier but who couldn’t stop smiling this evening at his son’s career-highlight achievement.

   By midnight, the euphoric Harvard crew was celebrating the 6-3 triumph they had presented as the best possible going-away gift to their beaming coach and a deflated Yale squad was sitting in silence through an agonizing three-hour bus ride home to New Haven. The following evening in the second-floor lounge of the Yale Club Of New York, one frustrated elderly Yale supporter, normally a model of decorum, snarled menacingly at a fellow club member who had innocently inquired about the match and rudely walked away. Derrick Niederman, Yale class of ’76 and squash captain his senior year, was one of many Elis past and present who had circled that evening on their calendars and journeyed to Hemenway Gymnasium in anticipation of the Yale win that never materialized. Niederman was so affected by his experience that night that shortly thereafter he produced an article entitled “The Streak,” which appeared in Squash News that spring, in which he chronicled both that evening’s events and the now-28-year Harvard skein they perpetuated.

   Though the Ivy League race thus ended in a three-way tie between Harvard, Yale and Princeton, Yale was awarded the end-of-season intercollegiate top ranking by virtue of a tiebreaker formula involving overall matches won. And the Elis, to their credit, did bounce back a few days later to win the inaugural post-season nine-man team tournament, the Art Potter Trophy, defeating Harvard 7-2 in a semifinal meet that featured the exact same match-ups throughout the entire lineup that had produced the shocking opposite outcome in Cambridge earlier that same week. This time Dean solidly out-played Kaye and a well-rested Musto resumed his career-long dominance over Bernheimer.

  But, if anything, these developments only served to deepen rather than salve the Yale team’s wounds, confirming its superiority over Harvard and hence accentuating the degree to which it had under-achieved in the crucible of the defining moment of its season. The official designation as national champions was decidedly bittersweet, almost a paper title --- no one doubted that the only real way to truly merit this standing would be to earn it on the court and by finally conquering their longtime nemesis head to head. Talbott and Co. realized that they would have another opportunity to accomplish this goal one year later, and they were grimly determined that this time they would not fail.


   Throughout that 1989-90 season, even while registering ten 9-0 victories and a 7-2 margin in their “away” match at Princeton, the powerful Bulldogs showed the maturity they had acquired from their painful lesson at Hemenway that night, tempering their confidence and keeping their eyes locked firmly on the prize. Four-year starters Dean, Kingsbury and captain Mehta were now joined by classmates Hoerle and Hunt, roommates who had quietly improved throughout college careers spent mostly on the JV and were now ready to contribute to a national title. All of them were seniors that year: their time to defeat Harvard was now or never. The sophomore Frank was improving rapidly, and talented junior Tim Goodale, though still plagued by the erratic play that made his fitful use of exceptional skills a frustrating puzzle to himself and his coaches, was ready to have his best season. Harvard rookie head coach Steve Piltch was presiding over a team that was struggling with injuries and forced to make do without one of its better players when George Polsky decided to take the whole year off to travel. The Harvard-Yale match, which alternated sites from one year to the next, would be at Yale this time. This HAD to be the year --- but would it?

  Yes, but only barely, as February 21st, 1990 produced what losing coach Piltch would later graciously classify as “the greatest match in intercollegiate history.” The teams were so close and all the match-ups so even that the outcomes of nearly half the matches in the 5-4 victory that Yale eked out that night would be reversed when the same two powerhouse rivals met at Penn in the final of the Potter Cup event four days later. Yale got wins in both matches from Musto over the British-born Harvard sophomore Mark Baker (with the former saving a combined total of five match-games against him and saving them all), from Frank at No. 5 over his Crimson counterpart Jim Masland and from Heights Casino product Alex Darrow, who in both cases rallied from two-love down to overtake Josh Horwitz at No. 9. Harvard countered with a pair each of victories at the Nos. 3 and 6 slots, where captain Bernheimer, the hero from the year before, and freshman Marty Clark, in an early sign of the mental toughness that years later would carry him to four S. L. Green crowns, would subdue Goodale and Hunt respectively. The Nos. 2, 4, 7 and 8 matches all “flipped,” with Mehta and Kingsbury both winning the dual match and losing the Potter match against Harvard’s Jeremy Fraiberg and Jim Masland’s brother John respectively at the Nos. 2 and 8 positions and the seniors Dean and Hoerle doing the opposite in their respective matches against Kaye and Faroukh Pandole at Nos. 4 and 7.

    After several hours of back-and-forth battling, the Nos. 2 through 9 matches were over, the score was 4-4 and the outcome of the dual meet had come down to the action on the main exhibition court, the Knox Court, where nearly 500 people crammed the 350-seat gallery to watch Musto battle the much-larger Baker. Flu-ridden for several weeks prior to this meet and wary of a repeat of the previous year, when he had exhausted himself during his U. S. Nationals run, Musto had wisely withdrawn from the Nationals this time and spent his limited practice time conserving his energy and working alone on his three-wall and double-boast, both of which he felt would be effective against his imposingly strong and fit but not exceptionally speedy foe. Baker’s powerful strokes had recently carried him to the prestigious Harry Cowles Invitational title, which he had claimed by defeating the highly-regarded top-twelve WPSA pro Jon Foster in a decisive four-game final, and when he won the opening game and moved to 4-1 in an all-important best-of-nine tiebreaker in the second, he appeared certain to capture a two games to love lead and a stranglehold on the match. What enabled the still physically sub-par Musto to escape with that 18-17 game and then, after losing the third and falling well behind in the fourth, to muster some of the finest squash of his career in winning those final two games, is subject to speculation. Whether it should be labeled destiny and the living out of a childhood dream, or a 28-year structure finally collapsing of its own onerous weight, or vindication and redemption after the demoralizing missteps of the year before, or simply a matter of a slightly superior team asserting that edge, is certainly a matter of interpretation.

  What is known for sure is that by the end of that glorious evening in Yale squash history, a self-described “out-of-control happy” Musto had authored a stirring comeback victory that earned a permanent legendary spot in Yale lore for himself and an undefeated regular-season slate, Yale’s first since the 1960-61 season, for his team and his coach. Niederman, whose win as a senior over Bill Kaplan 14 years earlier had marked the first Yale victory over Harvard at the No. 1 position in more than a decade, happily penned a sequel to his prior article, this time detailing the undulating but ultimately triumphant course of both that night’s epic confrontation and the Potter Cup final the ensuing weekend, in which Yale survived a four matches to two deficit when Darrow rallied to win in five; Frank, down triple-match-point against Jim Masland, won the next two points and then hit his only hard serve of the match, which ricocheted off the back wall and clung so tightly to the right wall that Masland whiffed on his attempted return to deny Harvard by this barest-possible of margins what would have been the clinching win; and Musto made this pair of back-from-the-dead comebacks (especially Frank’s) stick by surmounting his own two-game deficit and winning in five over a demoralized Baker, who seemed during the fifth game to be possibly having flashbacks from their match at the Payne Whitney less than 90 hours before.

   Yale’s double-victory finally meant Mission Accomplished, banished the ghosts of the recent and distant past and officially put an end to The Streak. A broken Baker, who chose not to return to Harvard to continue his education there the following fall, withdrew from the Individual Championships one week later at the University Of Rochester, as did an injured Fraiberg and the remainder of their eligible teammates, save their captain and No. 3 player Bernheimer, who did manage to salvage some of the wounded Crimson pride by defeating Mehta in the final after the latter had won over his teammate Musto in their semi. The undisputed champions were feted at a victory party hosted that spring by the Yale Club Of New York, whose A team (on which Clayton, Yale’s captain one year earlier, played an important role) had just gone undefeated in the highly competitive MSRA League as well, and all five varsity members from the senior class of 1990 were named co-recipients of the Skillman Cup, a kind of season-end MVP award, which had never previously been bestowed on more than one person, in recognition of the enormous contribution they had made, both individually and as a quintet, to the storied tradition of Yale squash. And Talbott, who had waited seven years to drink champagne, celebrated his coaching accomplishments that spring by winning the WPSA Legends (35-and-over) title at the Winter Garden in New York, defeating Sharif Khan in the semis and Charlie Khan in the final, in each case in convincing fashion.

   When the defending champions gathered in October 1990 for the first team meeting of the forthcoming season, Talbott expressed how large a void the departure of that quintet had created when he wryly remarked that “the lineup will look a little different this year, guys.” Indeed it would, with a host of talented but untested freshmen having to try to fill the shoes of all those experienced seniors of a year ago. For Musto, the only returning member of the ’90 squad’s top four, who had never played a single college match at any position other than No. 1, starting right from his first match freshman year, both the sight of so many new and frighteningly young faces and the pressure of trying to somehow conjure up an encore performance after those two five-game marathons had helped carry his team to the summit eight months earlier, were a little more than he felt he could realistically handle. As happens with college seniors in any sport who have experienced athletic glory as underclassmen, he was beginning to out-grow the Yale program and was no longer as inspired for every single match, even against such lesser lights as Amherst and Cornell, as he had been when his college career began. He was also beginning to turn his focus to the life that lay ahead of him after his impending graduation and, as many seniors do, trying to figure out which direction to pursue when that time came.

   He nevertheless heartily embraced his role as team captain, spending much of his practice time working with the freshmen and sophomores and getting, by his own subsequent account, more satisfaction out of contributing to their development than he did from his own matches. That a team that had lost so many key performers still managed to go 15-2 for the year is a tribute to Talbott’s and Musto’s teaching skills, as well as the quick learning curves displayed by freshmen Mac Carbonell,  Reade Frank and Jamie Dean. Carbonell had known Musto when both were at St. Paul’s a student generation earlier and the other pair, younger brothers of Garrett Frank and Alex Dean respectively, had both received the same expert training at Heights Casino as their older siblings had.

   That February, when Yale hosted the U. S. Nationals, Musto defeated both Octavio Montero and Clark to reach the final, but the defending champion Hector Barragan of Mexico was able to get the ball so heated up that Musto was unable to control it sufficiently and lost before his disappointed hometown fans in three torrid games. It would be the parting shot as a collegian for this Yale icon, whose dual-meet total of 38 wins (against just six losses) played a major role in transforming the program initially into a contender and eventually into a champion. In his final undergraduate appearance on the courts where he had dreamed so mightily, practiced so long and won so often, he let several fourth-game match-point opportunities slip away against Princeton’s Chris Stevens, whose eventual rallying win brought the Tigers a 5-4 victory, following which Musto lost in overtime in the fifth game to Jeremy Fraiberg of Harvard (which defeated Yale 7-2) and was forced by an upper-respiratory infection to withdraw from what would have been his last chance to win the Individual title.

   The 1991-92 team, captained by all-American Garrett Frank, who had a fine season at No. 1, went 15-1, but wasn’t strong enough to overcome a Harvard powerhouse that boasted a record SIX all-Americans out of the 10 allotted first-team positions and that advanced its top two players, Fraiberg and the defending Individual champion Adrian Ezra, to the Individual final, where Fraiberg culminated his intercollegiate career by repeating his month-old win in the Cowles final over his younger teammate. In 1992-93, with many of that Crimson tidal wave lost to graduation and juniors Carbonell, Frank and Dean all maturing into all-Ivy status, Yale came tantalizingly close to a repeat of their 1989-90 exploits, but didn’t quite have the depth to get over the top, losing 5-4 to both of their Big Three rivals. The Elis led Harvard and its rookie head coach Bill Doyle four matches to three, but Michael Oh gave Harvard the clinching win in the middle of the lineup after Clark was able to out-last Carbonell in five bitter and argument-filled games at the No. 1 position.


  It was pretty clear before the 1993-94 campaign even began that the anticipated switch from hardball to softball was only a matter of time, and not much time at that. The college women had already voted to switch, junior squash had converted several years before, as had the New England prep schools, and at every spring’s annual coaches meeting more and more coaches were arguing that the time had come. Coach Talbott, a strong advocate of the hardball game, which he much preferred and in which he himself had enjoyed so much success, first as a player and more recently as a coach, lobbied hard and (albeit barely) successfully to have the hardball remain for the forthcoming season. The seniors, particularly Frank and Dean, who badly wanted a shot at the team titles that their older brothers Garrett and Alex respectively had won four years earlier, would get one last chance after all.

   Even though Carbonell at No. 1 was plagued for most of the season with a shoulder injury, the resolute Yalies survived a 5-4 scare at Jadwin Gymnasium against Princeton and thus entered their climactic confrontation at home against Harvard with both teams undefeated and the national title on the line. The meet actually had to be pushed back a day when heavy snows forced the Harvard athletic director to forbid Doyle’s troops from traveling, a delay that only added to the already considerable pre-match tension, but when play finally began on the evening of February 24th, what followed was well worth the wait. Indeed many longtime squash aficionados who made the trek through the snow to New Haven that night, people who had witnessed Sharif Khan’s epic battles with Geoff Hunt and all the fifth-game overtimes on the WPSA tour, insisted when it was over that they had never before seen anything that for sheer drama could match the breath-taking rollercoaster that both teams rode that wintry evening.

   With the “evens” on first, Yale quickly picked up wins by Roger Arjoon over Andy Walter at No. 4 and by David Hand over Harvard captain John Palfrey at No. 8. Harvard countered with Oh beating Viren Chandrosoma at the sixth position but when captain Frank, who was magnificent all year, out-dueled Crimson star John Karlen at No. 2 in five long games in what had been viewed as a “swing” match and Yale’s Sam Ankerson (Heights Casino again) gave the Blue a straight-game win over Ted Bruenner at No. 5, Yale had a 4-1 lead and a seeming lock on the championship. Four years earlier, as a prep-school senior at the Hill School in suburban Philadelphia, Reade had sat in the gallery of the Ringe Courts at Penn and watched his brother Garrett save those three match-balls against him and thus provide an absolutely crucial victory in Yale’s 5-4 win over Harvard in the Potter Cup final. Now it looked like he too would play a starring role in a Yale win over Harvard and the NISRA title that would result.

   But Harvard still had a credible shot at winning, even in their precarious position. Everyone knew that the ’91 and ’93 Individual champion Ezra would defeat Carbonell, whose shoulder was really bothering him and who was sacrificing himself in order to give his teammates a better opportunity in their matches by pushing all of them one rung lower in the Yale lineup. Ezra’s win was expected, inevitable really, but his teammate Mike Masland’s match at No. 7 was up for grabs. And when Masland surmounted a substantial deficit to defeat Jason Ringer, and Harvard sophomore Joey Kaplan carried the day at No. 9 in another “swing” match that this time landed in Harvard’s column, the score became knotted at four matches apiece and a mad rush was on to the Howe-Kingsley Court, the second exhibition court, where Jamie Dean and Tal Ben-Schachar were locked in a death grip with the national championship resting entirely on the outcome of their two-hour struggle.

    By the time the fifth game of this match-up began (after Dean had eked out an extremely close fourth), the others had all ended. Dean’s parents, Tony and Joann, who had spent much of the past eight seasons supporting their sons’ consecutive careers at Yale, were intently following the action, as was their older son Alex, who had phoned the squash office from his home in San Francisco to learn how the meet was progressing and insisted on remaining on the line to receive ongoing updates for the last 40 minutes of Jamie’s match. Musto was on hand as well, anxiously hoping that the many hours of work he had put in during his senior year with the then-freshmen trio of Carbonell, Frank and Dean would pay off on this night. He recognized early on that the Dean-Ben Schachar match would likely determine the team outcome and thus secured a good seat behind their court well before Harvard’s third and fourth victories had been officially secured.

   As the deciding game moved tensely and tautly along, with never more than a few points separating the two contestants, the evening began to acquire a surreal quality. So many years of tradition, so many ghosts of past matches between these two arch rivals, all culminating and coming together in a roaring traffic of time. The two world-famous schools had been playing squash against each other since 1923-24, exactly seven decades ago, at which time the game was four years away from even being recognized as an official varsity sport at Yale. But never before tonight had the Harvard-Yale team match gone down to literally the final point of the final game of the final match, with the national title at stake. It was almost as if the game of hardball squash, knowing it was in its final collegiate run, had offered this magnificently tremulous evening as a final reminder of its greatness or, perhaps, as a parting (and vain) plea not to be thrown over by the college coaches at their forthcoming spring conference.

   The climactic best-of-nine tiebreaker session alone took 15 heart-thumping minutes to complete. The points were tiring and lengthy, as were the breaks between them, while the players paused to let the cheers and groans die down and to prepare themselves for the next crucial exchange. Dean, playing brilliantly against his graceful foe, went up three points to love and eventually four points to two, reacting to each winning effort by raising his arms to the sky with a self-exhorting bellow, while Ben-Schachar, an Israeli native whose time in the military service had dovetailed with the Persian Gulf war three years earlier, characteristically stayed much less emotive, so zoned in, in fact, that he was probably the only person in the jammed arena who, as it was later discovered, didn’t realize that his was the last, and deciding, match of the night.

   There followed two exceptionally long and grueling points, both of which went to Ben-Schachar, who thus prepared to serve from the left box at four-all, set-five, simultaneous match- and championship-point. The atmosphere by then was suffused with the kind of dislocating force that mad dreams sometimes exert upon the just-awakened sleeper. Ben-Schachar’s lob serve came off the right wall with plenty for Dean to swing at, perhaps too much, in retrospect, as Dean powered an attempted forehand serve-return winner that instead rang loudly off the middle of the tin, so unacceptably swift and cruel an ending to a tiebreaker heretofore characterized by such long and all-court points that it took a moment for the fact and finality of what had happened to fully register in the minds of a disbelieving gallery. Match to Ben-Schachar, NISRA championship to Harvard, an entire year of working and hoping and dreaming instantly foundering on one misguided swing, all over, just like that? To the suddenly silently stunned and momentarily uncomprehending Yale supporters thronging the stands, the point hadn’t really even started, it COULDN’T be over “just like that.” But it was.

   A shattered Dean sank to his knees in a vale of tears and had to be assisted off the court by Coach Talbott while his teammates protectively surrounded him. The victorious coach Doyle felt oddly ambivalent, his joy at Harvard’s rallying triumph tempered by an even stronger sense of empathy for his friend and former WPSA colleague Talbott and the latter’s devastated crew, especially the inconsolable Dean. The hoped-for rematch in the Potter competition was not to be, as the Elis fell to Western Ontario 5-4 in the semis when Carbonell lost a fifth-set tiebreaker to Michael Leckie, whose mates then lost to Harvard in the team final and who himself subsequently bowed in the Individual tourney final to Ezra, with the latter thereby notching the third Individual title of his sparkling intercollegiate career while also reaching the final of the U. S. Nationals before losing to four-time defending champion Barragan.


    Thankfully, by the time the annual squash banquet was held six weeks later in early April, everyone had managed to put the disappointing conclusion in its proper perspective, as was confirmed by Dean’s cheery reaction when the underclassmen presented him with the tin that had collected his final stroke in the Ben-Schachar match, with a penciled-in circle around the spot where the ball had hit, as a going-away memento. But despite this brief moment of levity, everyone understood that the Yale program had effectively shot its bolt attempting to win that 1993-94 crown, only to fall barely short, and that the times would be less rollicking for awhile. The imminent switch to softball meant that the Bulldogs would enter the 1994-95 campaign with no international-sized courts; in fact, the Skillman Associates, the squash program’s fundraising committee, had barely finished paying out the substantial costs associated with the significant American-court expansion of the late-1980’s, when everyone involved had understandably but wrongly believed that hardball would be the college game forever.

   Furthermore, Talbott had lost his entire top three to graduation, and his long-established advocacy of the hardball game had caused him to be unfairly and inaccurately pegged as a coach who didn’t want to and wouldn’t be able to coach softball, even though as a factual matter he had probably played more softball than many of the rival coaches who were trying to depict him in this unfavorable light in their recruiting wars for the best available high-school talent. Other than Ankerson and the inspirational Guyana-born Arjoon, who withstood a blown-out knee, a surgical wrist and legal blindness caused by macular degeneration to play heroically throughout the 1994-95 season, the cupboard was bare in the initial stages of the Yale post-hardball era.

   It took several transitional years for Talbott to fully disprove his unjust label and make substantial steps towards rebuilding the program, but by the 1996-97 season the process had begun, due largely to the dedication that year of the Shen Wing, named in recognition of a major gift from Theodore P. Shen ’66, whose daughter Carla was team captain and the John Blum Contribution Award recipient in 1998-99, and whose financial support led to the construction of six international courts, one of which was a three-glass-wall arena. By that time, Talbott’s softball coaching expertise had been firmly established, as had Yale’s commitment to the strength of its team in this new era, which was even more clearly underlined in the autumn of 1998, when Nicholas F. Brady, captain of Yale’s intercollegiate champion 1951-52 squash team and later Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Ronald Reagan and the senior George Bush, spearheaded the addition of nine international courts, one with three glass walls and another with FOUR glass walls.

   As a result of this pair of major expansions, which combined cost seven million dollars, the completed Brady Squash Center now consists of 15 top-of-the-line international courts, including one four-glass-wall court, two three-glass-wall courts and 12 glass-back-wall courts. These developments were at least partially responsible for the initial trickle of some foreign-born players into the program in the form of native Indians Devraj Roy, a transfer student from Northwestern, and Nikhil Bandare, who captained the 1997-98 and 1998-99 teams to 11-3 and 16-2 records respectively.

    Their presence has had an impact on the program that is reminiscent of what happened when Clayton and Wohlgemuth came from Heights Casino a decade earlier; just as a bevy of talented Brooklynites followed them to New Haven, so Roy and Bandare influenced other junior players from India to attend Yale, whose current roster includes Aftab Mathur and another Bombay native, Anschul Manchanda, who has a sophomore held the No. 1 position during the just-completed 2001-2002 season. The latter would seem to have both the talent and the pedigree to eventually attain greatness; his father, Brigadier Manchanda, won India’s national championship for eight consecutive years and is presently a highly respected coach in the Indian Squash Federation. The recent revision of the need-blind financial aid policy, which in its rigid former state caused Yale to lost some talented foreign applicants to its rivals, has evened the recruiting field, an absolutely critical consideration in the wake of the switch to the international game, and enabled the Yale squash program to expand to the point where the current roster has players not only from India but from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Canada, Kenya and the West Indies as well.

   The positioning of the program that Talbott heads today is nearly identical in softball to where it had been in hardball just before Musto’s arrival --- solid, highly competitive and with more depth than perhaps any team in the NISRA. The quality is so even in the last few spots on the varsity and the challenge matches for those precious few positions so intense that Talbott has taken to affectionately calling this crew “the Bomb Squad.” And they have produced beautifully in intercollegiate play; the Bulldogs swept the bottom four positions against Princeton at Jadwin this past February, only to lose 5-4 when they were unable to produce a single breakthrough against Princeton’s powerful top five. After losing 19 total dual meets during the first three softball seasons, Yale has gone 71-14 during the past five years, and the current roster has enough strength through the lineup that the only asset still missing is a genuine star at the top to lead the charge. Manchanda himself may develop into that player, and there are signs that others abundantly capable of filling that role may be arriving as soon as this coming autumn. Of Talbott’s starting nine as of the end of the 2001-02 season, five are either sophomores or freshmen, which can only augur well for the next several years as they mature and improve.

   With Trinity College’s assembly in recent years of a dynasty that has been undefeated since 1997-98 and that steamrolled through this past season with an overall individual match record of 142-2, Talbott’s immediate goal is to win several Ivy League titles and then take aim at his powerhouse neighbors in Hartford. Having empowered a heretofore second-echelon hardball program first to compete for and then to capture the national intercollegiate championship, he has already accomplished the first phase en route to achieving exactly the same mission on the softball front as well.


  He deservedly takes great pride in the reputation Yale teams perennially enjoy both for good sportsmanship and for truly being TEAMS; anyone who has been around Talbott’s squads at any stage of his prolonged tenure comes away from that exposure profoundly impressed with the level of comraderie that exists among his players. His 1988-89 team became the only recipient of the end-of-season Team Sportsmanship Award ever to have won the national team championship in the same year. A large majority of his players have kept in close touch with him and with the program long after their graduation and been honored to reciprocate the personal and athletic benefits they gained from their years in Talbott’s program with generous financial contributions and other signs, both tangible and intangible, of their ongoing support. They have almost become part of Talbott’s family; indeed, one of his players, Ming Tsai, Labossier’s contemporary in the class of ’86, DID become part of his family when he married Talbott’s younger sister Polly a few years ago!

  Talbott is highly admired both for his personable nature and coaching acumen. He feels blessed to have been the head pro at several top-echelon private clubs and to have moved from there to a significant role in the growth of the WPSA hardball tour, which he served as secretary and later as pro tour coordinator during the vital mid-1980’s period in that Association’s development, while also reaching the quarterfinals of a number of its tournaments, most notably the 1981 WPSA Championships, where he edged out Aziz Khan, 17-16 in the fifth. And of course he feels proud of the role he obviously played in Mark’s development into the superstar he became; the two have always been extremely close, even more so after Mark was appointed head coach of the Yale women’s team at the beginning of the 1998-99 season.

   But somehow all of those multi-front successes have be now given way in the Talbott persona to the coaching legacy that his nearly two decades as Yale head squash coach have built. The genealogy of the extended Talbott clan has a host of Yale connections. Dave’s grandfather, Nelson Trowbridge Talbott Sr., better known as Bud, was Yale class of 1914, the same year that the famed Yale Bowl was built, and as an all-America offensive tackle he was team captain during Yale’s first season in the Bowl. Dave’s father, Doug, a highly successful heart surgeon who later started a drug rehabilitation clinic which later became known as one of the foremost such institutions in the country, was Yale class of 1946. Dave’s uncle, Doug’s older brother Bud Jr., was also a Yale alumnus, as was Bud Jr.’s son Strobe, who later became Assistant Secretary Of State under President Bill Clinton, Strobe’s roommate when both were Rhodes Scholars at Oxford in the early 1970’s.

   Perhaps Talbott’s deepest sense of satisfaction as he reflects back on his coaching career in New Haven lies in his universally shared belief that through his energy and personality he has greatly enriched and compellingly enhanced both the nine-decade family Talbott tradition at Yale and the eight-decade squash tradition at Yale as well. As he nears his 50th birthday this summer and plans for his 20th campaign as Yale squash coach during the forthcoming 2002-03 season, his spirit and optimism seem as irrepressible as ever, and he appears likely to nurture his youthful charges and develop their games, all the while hugely enjoying himself both on and off the court, for many years to come.


Rob Dinerman, a four-year varsity letterman as a member of the Yale class of 1976, is completing his 30th season of competitive squash, during which time he has won 51 Open hardball tournaments, including a record six New York State Opens, and he has been ranked as high as No. 10 on the WPSA professional hardball tour. The recipient of more than a half-dozen awards, including the Edwin Bigelow Cup For Excellence In Play in 1980, 1986 and 1992, he is currently No. 3 in the USSRA hardball rankings and in the top 25 of the ISDA pro doubles rankings. In addition to being a  Contributing Editor for the squash web site Dailysquashreport.com, with a full archive of his articles, he also published a prep-school memoir, Chasing The Lion, passages from which, as well as a number of his squash-archival articles, can be found on his web site, robdinerman.com.