Drexel player Amey Khanolkar reflects on the University’s excitement for squash and its evolution from a men’s and a women’s club programs to varsity teams. Additional input from fellow Drexel players Justin Burkholder, Violetta Shubayeva, Evan Cyrkin, and Adam Ryan.
Philadelphia, PA — From the narrow hardball courts in the basement of the Dakalaskis Athletic Center to hosting the 2011 US Squash Open, the most prestigious professional squash tournament in North America to fielding varsity men’s and women’s squads, Drexel University has seen an unprecedented growth in the popularity of squash amongst the student body.
After its beginnings with a group of recreational squash enthusiasts in 2006, the fast-paced racquet sport now joins Drexel’s existing 16 varsity Division I teams. The excitement about these recent developments can be seen directly, with the increase in the number of casual squash players flocking to the newly built exhibition-style courts at the Recreation Center. The fact that a world-class player and a regular on the professional circuit — former world #1 John White — will be heading the men’s and women’s squash teams has created even more interest in squash at Drexel.
Drexel University’s location in Philadelphia has played a key role in the advancement of the sport at the university. Philadelphia boasts of a rich squash heritage, dating back to the 1890s. The United States Squash Racquets Assoication (USSRA) was founded in Philadelphia in 1904, where the seeds for an organized structure for running the sport in the US were laid. Several athletic clubs with a focus on squash, such as the Racquet Club of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Cricket Club, Germantown Cricket Club, and the Cynwyd Club, blossomed in the Philadelphia area. Established college squash teams in the Philadelphia area included the University of Pennsylvania and Haverford College.
It was only a matter of time that the university would begin supporting squash at a varsity level and join in the Philadelphia squash culture. Support from the administration has also gone a long way in elevating the status of squash at Drexel. Drexel’s President, John A. Fry, as well as the Athletic Director, Eric Zillmer, are both avid squash players and keenly follow the sport. Fry in fact serves on the Board of Directors of US Squash and was instrumental in getting Drexel to host the US Open in October 2011. Drexel students still find it hard to believe that pros such as Nick Matthew, Ramy Ashour and James Willstrop will be on the university’s campus this fall.
Drexel’s athletic director has worked tirelessly to raise the awareness of the sport on Drexel’s campus for over ten years . It all began when Zillmer welcomed SquashSmarts, an urban squash program, to operate out of the squash courts in the basement of the Drexel Athletic Center. The SquashSmarts program, though not affiliated with the university, helped gather a group of Drexel student volunteers committed to mentoring young Philadelphia school students by teaching squash as well as helping out with their academics.
Recognizing the rising popularity of squash on campus, the Department of Recreation decided to organize squash intramurals. The very first intramural competitions saw about 50-60 players signing up. It was during this time that the seeds for a squash team were laid. In 2006, freshmen Justin Burkholder and Evan Cyrkin established the Drexel Squash Club with the support of Drexel’s Club Sports Council, advisor Jim Mitchell, and SquashSmarts’ founder and executive director, Steve Gregg, along with several other faculty and staff members. The club team almost immediately began competing in league matches organized by the Philadelphia Squash Racquets Association (PSRA), as well as playing against nearby college teams. The membership base of the team expanded rapidly, with a group of experienced squash players – students not just from the US, but from around the world.
In 2007, the Drexel squash team competed for the first time at the CSA Men’s Team National Championships held at Yale University as a 5-man team in the emerging teams division. The team continued to compete at the CSA Nationals from then on. Getting the opportunity to watch and interact with some of the top players in the college squash arena was a stand-out experience for the Drexel team.
In 2008, the women’s team was formed by Violetta Shubayeva, with the help of students Katey Whyte and Rebeccca Schaefer and advisor Donna Murasko (Dean of College of Arts and Sciences). Going from sharing shoes and racquets to a full-fledged nine-player team, the women’s program has achieved great milestones along the way with fundraising achievements and receiving the “Volunteers of the Year” award from SquashSmarts.
2009 was a landmark year in Drexel’s squash history: the men’s team captured the Chaffee Division National Title by defeating Vanderbilt University. At the same time, the University also announced the building of two new glass-backed courts with stadium-style seating. Support for the club team came from several administrative offices of the University and family donations, making it possible for the team to travel to round robins at Stanford University in California, the SESRA tournament in Atlanta, and the Navy Round Robin in Annapolis.
The team has also been fortunate to have dedicated coaches. SquashSmarts executive director Steve Gregg, SquashSmarts directors Jake Greenbaum and Guillermo Moronta, and Drexel alum and professional squash player Greg Park have worked tirelessly with the team to develop a competitive edge. “Looking back on where we came from to where we are now truly has exceeded all of our expectations,” says co-founder Justin Burkholder.
Now, under the leadership of head coach John White, the Drexel men’s and women’s squash teams will compete at the 2012 CSA National Championships for the first time as varsity squads with the goal of climbing up the rankings and establishing Drexel as a force in the world of college squash.