New Haven, CT — Harvard University defeated the University of Pennsylvania 5-4 to win the 2016 Howe Cup and the national title.
The Crimson came into the tournament as the defending national champions — and as fixtures in the Howe Cup final. Since 2009, the Crimson have appeared in every A Division final, and they have won the national title four times during that stretch (2010, 2012, 2013, and 2015). Overall, Harvard was making a bid for a 16th Howe Cup championship.
Harvard had been perfect in the regular season, going 10 and 0 and winning the Ivy League title along the way. The Crimson carried that momentum from the regular season into the Women’s National Team Championships, roaring past Cornell 9-0 in the opening round of the tournament. In a rematch of the 2015 Howe Cup final, Harvard faced Trinity in the semifinals, and while the Bantams slowed the Crimson, they couldn’t stop them. It took Harvard until the first match of the third round of play to clinch a spot in another final, but in the end, they came away with a 5-4 win.
Penn doesn’t have as lengthy as championship resume as Harvard, but the Quakers are no strangers to the Howe Cup final. They won the A Division crown in 2000, and they last reached the final in 2010, where they fell 3-6 to Harvard.
During the regular season, Penn posted a 12-1 record, losing only to Harvard. The Quakers blanked nine of their regular-season opponents, clocking in one 9-0 win after another. They continued their dominance in the first round of the Women’s National Team Championships, sweeping Columbia. In the semifinals, they faced a game Princeton squad, but they clinched their 6-3 win early in the third flight of matches.
The final began with player introductions and recognition of CSA Scholar Athletes from each team. To be named a CSA Scholar Athlete, players must be juniors or seniors, have a 3.5 GPA or higher, and regularly compete in varsity matches. Penn’s Grace Van Arkel and Harvard’s Isabelle Dowling, Michelle Gemmell, Dileas MacGowan, and Katie Tutrone were recognized as CSA Scholar Athletes before the match.
The co-captains from each team then introduced their line-ups. Seniors Dowling and Saumya Karki introduced Harvard, while fellow seniors Yan Xin Tan and Camille Lanier introduced Penn.
Today’s final opened with the matches at the number 3, 6, and 9 positions. At number 3, Alyssa Mehta of Harvard faced Tan. Penn’s Rowaida Attia Walid played Harvard’s Sue Ann Yong at number 6, and another Mehta, Sophie, played Van Arkel at number 9.
In the first game of that number 9, Sophie Mehta outlasted Van Arkel 12-10. She followed that up with an 11-3 win in the second, jumping out to a 2-0 lead before the other matches’ first games had even ended. Yong edged Walid 13-11 in game one, and Tan took her first game 11-6 against Alyssa Mehta.
Van Arkel took game three against Sophie Mehta, winning on a stroke and forcing a game four. The matches on the glass courts, both into their second games, were tight. Alyssa Mehta won 12-10 to tie her match 1-all. Yong pulled away to win her second game 11-7. Van Arkel and Sophie Mehta tied at 6-all, then Van Arkel didn’t drop another point, winning 11-6 and taking the match to five.
Yong powered through the third game, winning 11-3 and giving Harvard their first point. Minutes later, Van Arkel completed her comeback by winning 11-4 in the fifth. The overall match score was now tied 1-all.
On the main glass court, Tan outlasted Alyssa Mehta 12-10 in the third, going up 2-1 in games. In game four, Mehta built up a small lead and managed to hold Tan off, at one point sliding into a full split to reach a short ball. Her 11-8 win forced a fifth game. The fifth looked like it was going to be a rout. A composed Tan allowed Mehta to make mistakes — a stroke here, a tin there — and capitalized upon them. Then, when Tan had match ball, Mehta seized the momentum, running up a string of points. But it wasn’t enough: Tan won the game 11-6, giving Penn a 2-1 lead coming out of the first wave.
The second round match-ups were Anaka Alankamony (Penn) versus Kayley Leonard (Harvard) at number 2, Gemmell versus Michelle Wong (Penn) at number 5, and Lanier (Penn) versus MacGowan (Harvard) at number 8.
In the number 5 match, Wong went up 2-0 against Gemmell, who had won the deciding match for Harvard at last year’s Howe Cup final. Showing her experience, Gemmell won 11-8 in the third, taking the match to a fourth game. Wong was in control in game 4, building up a sizable lead that Gemmell couldn’t catch. Wong won 11-4 in the fourth.
Penn led 3-1, but not for long. MacGowan racked up a quick three-game win at number 8, bringing the Crimson within a match of the Quakers. Alankamony and Leonard traded wins in the first two games of the number 2 match. Game three was all Leonard. She went up 2-1 with an 11-4 win. The fourth game was closer, but Leonard’s confidence seemed to build as it went on. Her 11-7 win in the fourth tied the match score at 3-all. The national title would be decided in the final wave of matches.
In the final round, Sabrina Sobhy of Harvard faced Reeham Sedky of Penn at number 1. The Quakers’ Marie Stephan played Tutrone at number 4, and at number 7 Karki took on Penn’s Haidi Lala.
Tutrone won a close first game at number 4, and Karki won an even closer first game — 14-12 — at number 7. Stephan sprung up and down after hitting the winning shot in her 11-9 victory over Tutrone in the second game. The action at number 7 paused with Lala down with an injury. Back at the number 4 match, Stephan won a quick game three to go up 2-1 against Tutrone. The number 7 match resumed, and Karki outlasted Lala again in another game that went to extra points.
Stephan powered ahead to 7-0 in the fourth before Tutrone got her first point. After a brief stoppage of play, Tutrone bounded back, slicing away at Stephan’s lead. The Penn sophomore, however, regained her composure and won the game 11-8, putting Penn within a match of the national title.
Lala won game three 11-7 against Karki, but the Harvard senior captain built up a lead in the fourth. Though Lala nearly caught her several times, Karki was unstoppable, winning 11-8. With the overall score tied 4-all, the national title would come down to the number 1 match.
First-year players Sobhy and Sedky traded their first two games, with the first going to Sobhy and the second going to Sedky. In game three, the two players tied at 6-all, then 7-all. Sobhy won four unanswered points to take the game and a 2-1 lead.
Sobhy got on the board first in the fourth game, but Sedky stayed close. The score stayed tight, as one player would inch ahead and the other would catch her. The game alternated between long, athletic points and rallies cut short by strokes and lets. After one call, Sedky put her hands to her head, dropped her racquet, and kicked it across the court. A few points later, she tangled in Sobhy’s feet as the Penn player scrambled to recover a shot to the front of the court. Sobhy offered her a hand as Sedky clutched her back. After a few moments to regroup, Sedky was back in the game.
The match was tied through 6-all, and then Sobhy won two points in quick succession. She went up 9-6, then Sedky answered with two quick points of her own, bringing the score to 9-8.
With Sedky serving, Sobhy placed a drop to Sedky’s backhand close to the wall. Sedky played Sobhy’s body and asked for the let. The call was no-let, and Sobhy had match ball.
Sedky regained the serve, and at 9-10, she went short to Sobhy’s backhand. Sobhy recovered with a weak cross court lob, scrambling to get out of the way. Sedky, standing at the T, went to a volley but stopped short, asking for a let instead. The call? Not let.
Sobhy had won the point, the match, and the national title for Harvard.
This is Harvard’s 16th national team title. They are coached by Mike Way, the Gregory Lee ’87 and Russell Ball ’88 Endowed Coach for Squash at Harvard University, and assistant coaches Beth Zeitlin, Hameed Ahmed, and Luke Hammond.