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Squash: Rising to the top

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How do you get noticed as a sports program, and a women’s one at that, when you’re competing in the sea of top-tier programs that make up Cardinal athletics? Try quickly rising to No. 6 in the nation and being the only team of its kind in the state of California. That’s the reality for the Stanford women’s squash team, and under head coach Mark Talbott, it has achieved this feat in just six seasons.

In 2005, the Stanford Athletic Department announced that the women’s club team would become the first women’s varsity squash team west of the Mississippi River. In 2011, the Cardinal finished No. 6 in the nation after a tough season competing against the dominant squash schools from the East Coast.

Co-captained by seniors Cecilia Haig and Samantha Buechner, Stanford finished the regular season 9-5 and reached the final of the consolations in the Howe Cup, the national championship, before losing to No. 4 Penn and finishing the season 10-7. The Cardinal traveled four separate weekends to the East Coast and hosted Bates College and George Washington University at Stanford’s new facilities.

Haig recognized the hardships of trekking across the country but knows that squash’s concentration in the Northeast makes the travel a necessity.

“We fly east and play three, four, sometimes five matches,” explained Haig, who grew up in Greenwich, Conn. “Once, we played five matches in three days in four different states. A plus is that we are near many of our homes, so we often get to enjoy home cooking and team bonding. All our families are so on board and very incorporated with the team.”

Another feature unique to Stanford squash is the nature of the team itself. Originally founded by enthusiastic undergraduate students, the team still largely relies on the student-athletes for passion and commitment. The team is nonetheless managed and led by Talbott, who himself was the No. 1 male squash player in the United States from 1983-1995 and coached the Yale women’s team to a national championship in 2004 before moving on to a new challenge in Palo Alto.

“I really wanted to help expand squash to the West Coast,” Talbott said. “But one of the main reasons I chose to move to California was because my daughter has diabetes and this was a better environment for my family. This is now my seventh year here and I love coaching both the women’s team and the men’s team.”

When Talbott first arrived, Stanford was ranked almost dead last in the country. However, under his authority, the Cardinal has steadily moved up the rankings.

“We are the only team that’s played every single collegiate squash team,” Talbott laughed. “Because we started so far down in the rankings, we’ve moved up divisions over the past years and now are part of the top tier. It’s a unique program with a huge amount of student involvement.”

Talbott is beloved by all his players, who admire his immense coaching knowledge as well as his laid-back approach.

“Mark is probably one of the coolest people I know,” Haig said. “His love of the game is infused in the team and his relaxed attitude is refreshing. Richard, our assistant coach, is more structured and often focuses on drilling, whereas Mark concentrates more on match play–it’s the perfect combo.”

One memorable match for freshman Serena Fagan was against No. 3 Trinity College, a powerhouse program in the squash world, in which the Cardinal fell 5-4.

“I played first round and played so terribly,” Fagan said. “Collegiate squash is a different pace of playing. People volley a lot more and cut the ball off early so it makes everything faster. I was upset that I hadn’t played well, but my teammates encouraged me and told me that everyone gets nervous for her first match.”

Talbott expressed satisfaction in the team’s growing confidence levels.

“I think the girls are really starting to trust that they can compete with the top five teams,” Talbott said. “Trinity, for example, and even the close match against Penn in the Howe Cup consolation final.”

Based on the past, the Cardinal should believe in itself–jumping from an ambiguous 30-something to a No. 6 in the rankings in less than six years speaks for itself.