Taking a Chance
Squash ventures west; Stanford paves the way.
Tyler Strand, a senior at the Horace Mann School in New York City, had a couple of opportunities to put an early end to his college-application anxieties. All he needed to do was pledge his commitment to one of the East Coast schools pursuing him as a squash player. That could have settled the matter in October.
But Strand chose to shoot for early admittance to Stanford, where the men's squash team is a club squad, not varsity—and of C-level caliber according to its coach, who also mentors A-level varsity women. Tyler, why?
Like many Stanford athletes, Strand, who was accepted in December, had a variety of reasons, including the University's academic strength. Still, the squash program was a major consideration. "It just struck me as involving a very cohesive group of people," Strand says. "It was more like one big squash family than at other schools."
More than good vibes are involved, but they're certainly part of the formula for a program that has developed a special niche on the Farm. The coach, Mark Talbott, generated significant buzz when he left the women's team at Yale to become the program director at Stanford in 2004. Since then, Talbott—"the Michael Jordan of squash" as a pro player—has been the force behind a who'd-have-thunk-it rise in the sport's Bay Area prominence.
A big boost came when the Arrillaga Center for Sports and Recreation opened in 2005 with seven courts. In 2006, the women's team rose from club to varsity status, a first for a program west of the Mississippi. Everything brimmed with promise, and now, a handful of years later, Talbott has achieved the kind of success that's a tad magical.
The ability to attract athletes such as Strand is emblematic of national credibility among both men and women players. Moreover, the women's team has become competitively elite, reaching the Howe Cup, the national championship tournament, in 2008 and 2009, each time finishing seventh. Perhaps even more rewarding, the Arrillaga courts are booked to capacity almost every evening by students, faculty, staff and members of the Stanford Squash Club, non-Stanford players who pay $750 annually for access. All 80 memberships are taken.
The growth of the sport within the community has far exceeded my expectations," notes Talbott. "It's exciting to be part of something this unique, involving so many different people."
For all that, it's also a situation in which Talbott must rely heavily on his own fund-raising to meet the program's budget (including his salary). The athletics department helps with expenses but as yet is unable to fund any scholarships for the women's team. As a result, the women's varsity status boils down to the consideration that qualified applicants get if they are on Talbott's recruiting list. So far, so good: Interest among recruited players has reached the point where Talbott doesn't anticipate ever having a place for a walk-on.
This year's teams are the strongest so far, Talbott says, and the women illustrated that with an early season victory over Princeton, the defending national champion. When assessing the squads, Talbott singled out the captains—senior Katy Brewster for the women and Pat Bugas, '10, Ananth Sridhar, '10, and Sam Gould, '11, for the men.
Those players, he notes, represent an important milestone: a program that has gained a sense of history. "They helped build it and committed to Stanford when the teams were mostly comprised of beginners."
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Data is from the past two weeks.