Interview With Kirk Randall
by Rob Dinerman

June 22, 2009 -
Squashtalk recently paid a visit to Kirk Randall, the highly respected varsity boys’ and girls’ squash coach at the Phillips Exeter Academy in southern New Hampshire who has just completed his 10th season in that capacity after serving 18 years as the head pro at the University Club of Boston, in order to get his take on the current New England squash scene. The competitive milieu in New England prep (i.e. boarding) school squash changed dramatically in the aftermath of the early-1990’s switch from hardball to softball in terms of its impact both on school facilities and the competitive aspirations at the collegiate level of the prep-school varsity programs, and the coaches and administrators of the New England Interscholastic Squash Association (NEISA) have had to make adjustments to these shifting competitive currents as well.

Beginning with NEISA’s formation in the early 1950’s and continuing through the subsequent four decades, the top- and even second-echelon varsity players at the New England prep schools could expect to have prominent positions on Ivy League rosters --- it was not at all uncommon for recent graduates from Exeter, Andover (Exeter’s chief rival since both Academies were founded by members of the same family, with John Phillips founding Exeter in 1782 after his brother, Samuel Phillips, had founded Andover in 1778), Deerfield, Choate Rosemary Hall, Milton, Tabor, Westminster, Middlesex, Belmont Hill and St. Pauls, along with their counterparts from private day schools like Episcopal, Shipley, Chestnut Hill, Haverford and Hill from the squash-rich Philadelphia area, to comprise the entire nine-man lineup at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Penn, which dominated the top tier of the college rankings during that lengthy time span.

But once the colleges turned to the international (i.e. softball) game after the 1993-94 season, prodded in no small measure by the New England prep-school switch a year or two earlier, which itself occurred in the wake of the softball-oriented trend that junior squash was clearly following at the time, the American players were inexorably elbowed down the varsity ladder, and in many cases onto the JV, displaced by players from foreign countries who had been playing the softball version of the game since childhood. The last American player to win the men’s Intercollegiate Individual tournament, John Bernheimer, a Belmont Hill alumnus, accomplished this feat 19 years ago, in 1990, when he was a senior at Harvard, and Trinity College, which under coach Paul Assaiante has won the last 11 Potter Cups emblematic of the Intercollegiate Team Championship, has not had a significant American presence in their formidable lineup since Preston Quick, class of 2000, a subsequent two-time winner (in ’03 and ’04) of the S. L Green national singles title and a three-time (in ’03, ’04 and ’07) U. S. National Doubles champion who has also earned a top-four ISDA pro-doubles ranking during each of the past three years with John Russell as his partner.

What this transformation in the college squash scene has meant is that New England prep-school players, even those who hold down the top few spots on the team, who choose to attend elite squash-playing colleges like the Ivy League schools and Trinity, do so with the understanding that they will have major difficulty cracking the starting nine and are extremely likely to spend their entire varsity careers fighting (possibly in vain) to make one of the last few spots on the varsity. In the current climate those American players who do attain positions higher up in the lineup are far more likely to come not from the New England prep schools but rather from private day schools in New England or the Philadelphia metropolitan area who have access to top-tier coaches at their parents’ private clubs (Will Broadbent, class of ’02 at the Brunswick School in Greenwich, CT, who during his high-school years took frequent lessons with the Greenwich Field Club’s British-born two-time S. L. Green champion Damian Walker on weekday afternoons and who later starred at Harvard, is an example of the foregoing), and who have the freedom to maintain an active junior-tournament schedule both in the U. S. and abroad.

The latter option is never available to students at Exeter or many of the other prep schools, a number of which have classes on Saturday mornings. The members of the teams at Brunswick and its “sister” school, Greenwich Academy, fully deserve the No. 1 standing they have held throughout the decade of the 2000’s (though Brunswick had to share the 2007 No. 1 New England team award with a similarly undefeated Exeter squad led by three-year No. 1 Mike Maruca and No. 2 Ed Casserley), but their ongoing access to near-daily individual and group lessons from prominent pros at the half-dozen private clubs in Greenwich, Rye and Stamford have clearly played a significant role in their success as well.

This dynamic has also discouraged some of the top squash-playing juniors from matriculating at New England prep schools, since they know that doing so is likely to exact a price in their U. S. junior ranking, both because of this limitation in their tournament access and because most prep schools require their students to play fall and spring sports as well, rather than allowing them to concentrate on one sport. In addition, the academic standard at Exeter and its prep-school counterparts in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut is very high, the course load extremely rigorous, the expectation constantly present that its students, in addition to fulfilling their homework and sports commitments, will also engage in extra-curricular activities and volunteer in their communities, and the pressure to gain admission at a reputable college noteworthy and quite tangible.

These various constraints have forced New England prep-school coaches to be truly efficient, a task made easier by the extraordinary squash facilities that their respective schools have constructed in recent years. At Exeter, for example, where when the sport began in the early 1930’s one had to negotiate a frigid and pitch-black 25-yard tunnel to reach the two rows of four chilly courts each with a catwalk that doubled as a gallery in between, the three softball courts that were erected as a stopgap measure in the late 1990’s have been replaced by the magnificent Fisher Squash Center, dedicated in 2005, which constitutes a beautifully lit and arrayed squash paradise featuring 10 glass-back-wall courts with gallery space for 500 spectators located right in the heart of George Love Gymnasium. Deerfield responded with a 10-glass-back-wall-court facility of its own last season and the other NEISA members have all constructed squash complexes of comparable dimension that reflect how far squash (which used to rank well behind such winter-season sports as hockey and basketball) has advanced in the prep-school totem pole, and how greatly the number of students who play the game recreationally or at the club (i.e. intramural) level has expanded as well.

Coach Randall, 67, who for many years was an elite middle- and long-distance national-level competitive runner himself and coaches Exeter’s distance track runners in the spring after the squash season ends, is a firm believer in building a stamina and conditioning base in the first few months of the season which he hopes will pay off in February, the critical month when most of the key matches against NEISA rivals, culminating in the home-and-home annual series with Andover and the season-ending New England Interschols tournament, occur. His teams often begin practice with an aerobic run of about 20 minutes followed by solo drilling, pairs drilling and “condition” games to encourage the use of certain shots or to learn strategic play.  The members often play short, high-pressure games with different opponents, sometimes handicapping the games, so that all levels get to play with each other.  Randall tries to mix up the players on the varsity and JV during drills and competition so that they have to deal with different styles of play and different levels of intensity. He also either begins or ends many team practices with squash-specific sprinting drills or strengthening exercises. He believes that inculcating a combination of movement efficiency and racquet fundamentals will put his charges in a position to maximize their squash potential both during their time at Exeter and afterwards.

Pursuant to the goal of peaking in February, he pushes his players in training for each of the early- season matches with the belief that they must learn to play and push themselves when tired, so if that is what happens early on, it will be of benefit later in the season.  One of the problems that he and other coaches encounter with athletics in general at Exeter is dealing with students who do not get enough sleep, are constantly tired and on the verge of sickness, if not actually sick, especially during the winter months, all of which prevents him from accomplishing what he would like because the players just are not capable of recovering from intense training, a frustrating by-product of the reality of the school and the work required of the students in the classroom.

Just as one definite plus that New England prep-school squash has always enjoyed that continues as powerfully to this day as ever is the pulsating rivalries that exist among the NEISA institutions (an Exeter late-February “revenge” 4-3 win during Randall’s inaugural 1999-2000 season over an Andover squad that had dominated the 5-2 early-season meet gave him an adrenalized indoctrination into the Exeter-Andover rivalry, as well as an important lesson in the unpredictability of those clashes), so too an upside to having to compress the learning curve of a difficult sport like squash into the brief four-year span is seeing Exeter alumni/ae in many cases experience far more success in their collegiate careers than their prep-school results would have suggested.

Among recently graduated Exonians, Liz Wright at Mt. Holyoke and Aaron Ligon, captain as a senior in ’06 of a Stanford squad coached by American icon Mark Talbott, both of whom were just off the seven-player Exeter lineup before their dedication to improvement started paying off as collegians, are prime examples of this phenomenon, as is Kavitha Mannava, who just completed her sophomore year as a solid member of the varsity squad at Williams. Randall disciples who were more predictable in making solid contributions to their respective college teams were the four Haynes siblings, namely Crosby at Dartmouth, Patrick and Breck at Brown and Schuyler  at Bates (the youngest member of the clan, Player, was captain of the ’09 squad and will be entering George Washington University this coming autumn); Tony Maruca, Mike’s older brother, at Williams (the youngest of the three, Andy, is captain-elect for next season); Nelson Schubart at Tufts; Duncan Ma at MIT; three-year Exeter No. 1 Leah Stork and William Lewis at Stanford; Sarah Odell at Wellesley; Casey Simchik at Wesleyan; Todd Ostrow at Harvard; and Micah Wood at Middlebury.

Player Haynes’s counterparts this past season, girls’ co-captains Libby Pei and (team MVP) Sarah Beresford, are heading to Vassar and Brown respectively still riding the momentum of the remarkable in-season turnaround that their team conjured up during the winter of ’09, one in which after a deflating 1-4 start they won nine of the final 10 matches, including three consecutive 4-3 victories in which a different heroine emerged each time, from captain-elect Katie Quan to Carolyn Meister to Alex Manfull to Meeta Prakash to Emily Gibadlo to Beresford herself, whose prominent membership on a field-hockey team that went far into the New England playoffs delayed the start of her squash season. What made this season-ending surge so compelling is the fact that, other than the Hong Kong-based Pei, who played No. 1 most of the season and whose three-years-older sister Sally had also been a successful Exeter squash player, not one of the starting seven had played squash prior to attending Exeter.

It is the ever-present potential for accomplishments like the foregoing girls’ team surge that has inspired Exeter coaches to attain extraordinary longevity at the helm --- Randall’s 10 years are far exceeded by the 30 years that the late George Bennett logged from 1931-61; the 21 years compiled by Werner Brandes (in whose honor the New England Interscholastic Team Trophy was re-named) from 1968-92 (there were three sabbatical years during that time frame); and the 23 years during which Spruill Kilgore guided the girls team from the late-1970’s until her retirement in 2000 --- and that has fueled the efforts of Randall’s colleagues at the other New England prep schools as well to ensure that those schools retain a significant presence in the overall squash picture in the United States.

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