By Charles Innes ‘22
At the beginning of the season, the Woodberry varsity squash team could only dream of being national champions. However, when the Tigers took a 4-1 lead in the final round against Mercersburg Academy, they knew what once seemed out of reach had become reality, and they would soon be the U.S. High School Division Five National Champions.
On Thursday, February, 21, the varsity squash team departed classes early and began the 10 hour long journey to Hartford, Connecticut, where they would soon be competing in the U.S High School National Championships. Throughout the weekend, the Tigers went 4-0, defeating strong opponents in St. Luke’s, St. Mark’s, St. Andrew’s, and Mercersburg Academy, to make each minute spent during the long drive to Hartford worth it.
The Tigers began their time at Nationals with a quick turn around. After arriving in Hartford late on Thursday night, the Tigers arose early to prepare for a 9:30 a.m. match Friday morning. Since Woodberry’s squash team hadn’t attended Nationals since 2002, none of the eight attending players truly knew what to expect. After warming up, the Tigers readied themselves for fierce competition, and that’s exactly what they got. In a bit of a surprise, St. Luke’s jumped off to a quick lead, defeating Graham Roberts ‘23, who was still recovering from a hamstring injury suffered earlier in the season, and Jay O’Keefe ‘22, at slots one and seven respectively. A quick win by Hunter Groton’22 at the number two slot helped the Tigers recover a bit, but soon enough sixth-former the opponent Henry Rich ‘20 opponent delivered an impressive performance, giving St. Luke’s school a three to one lead. In the modified seven-player format for Nationals, in order to win a match, a team must secure four individual wins to advance to the next round. With heavy pressure and the knowledge that if one of the remaining three players lost, Eli Drake ‘20 and Charles Innes ‘22 stepped into the court. Drake quickly dispatched his opponent without hesitation, 3-0. Similarly, Innes defeated St. Luke’s number three in a 3-1 score. With Drake and Innes having secured the number four and three positions, all eyes turned to fifth former Sam Long ‘21 at the number six position. In the deciding match, Long secured the match that would advance the Tigers to the next round with a quick 3-0 victory.
The next morning, the players arose even earlier to face off against St. Mark’s School. Feeling prepared after their very close match on Friday, the Tigers took to the courts swiftly, with Long decisively winning his match, and co-captain Drake defeating a tougher opponent in an evenly split match. St. Mark’s gained their first victory when Innes fell in a long five-game match that could have gone either way. Roberts suffered a similar fate when his hamstring acted up once more a close match, losing 1-3. Knowing the score was 2-2 O’Keefe took to the court and won his match quickly, putting Rich and Groton into a pressured position. Co-captain Rich, facing an opponent with the exact same rating as him, fought hard to win a brutal five-game match, while Groton repeated his strong performance from Friday and dispatched his opponent 3-0. With Woodberry’s victory, the squash team was slated to play St. Andrew’s of Delaware later that afternoon.
Returning to the courts at Loomis Chaffee School later that afternoon, which served as the location for all division five matches, the Tigers prepared to play in the semifinals, which would perhaps be their toughest match yet. Despite his outstanding performance so far in the tournament, Long lost focus and lost a quick 0-3 match against a quality opponent, giving St. Andrew’s a quick 1-0 lead. Next, O’Keefe faced a challenging opponent of his own, and after giving it his all in a match full of dives, outstanding shots, and fierce competition, fell 1-3. Following the 2-0 match score deficit, Innes surprised his opponent and jumped to a quick lead, eventually winning his match 3-0. Meanwhile, Drake played a fierce match and gave an epic comeback, winning in the fifth game, during which he fought through a 1-7 deficit, and a later 8-10 disadvantage. On the other court, Roberts played his best match of the tournament and defeated a quality opponent 3-1. With the lead at 3-2, the Tigers needed one of their two remaining players, Rich and Groton to win in order to move on to the finals. Although only one player had to win for the team to advance, neither would disappoint as both players quickly won their matches 3-0, sending the Tigers to the championship round, where they would play Mercersburg Academy, a team they had already faced in the regular season.
Sleeping in for the first time all weekend, Woodberry’s varsity squash team traveled one last time to Loomis Chaffee School, ready to leave it all on the court. Although the Tigers had beaten their opponent, Mercersburg Academy, earlier in the year, few knew what to expect as two months of training and preparation created an entirely new squad of players to face. But the Tigers kept their heads in the game and prepared for anything and everything. The first match of the afternoon began, and the Tiger’s number three seed, Innes, stepped onto the court. Knowing his match would set the tone, Innes fought through any nerves and defeated his opponent 3-0 to put the Tigers on the board. Feeling confident after their first win, both Drake and Groton stepped onto the court. Sixth-form co-captain Drake knew this would be his final squash match as a Tiger, and he played in a way he would remember. Before the match, he said, “I didn’t drive all the way up here to lose.” And sure enough, he didn’t. Dispatching his opponent with ease in a 3-0 match, Drake became undefeated at Nationals and positioned his team to take the championship. Meanwhile, Groton, who took a quick 2-0 lead, found a transformed opponent in the third and fourth game, who tied the score at 2-2. But Groton regained his lead in the final game and defeated his opponent 3-2, positioning the Tigers with a 3-0 lead. Knowing he could clinch the win for the tigers, other sixth form co-captain Rich stepped onto the court feeling the pressure. But as soon as the first ball was hit, all the pressure was forgotten. Rich played phenomenally, taking the first game, the second game, and then, the third game, clinching the victory for the Tigers, and ensuring that Woodberry’s squash players were national champions. Long and O’Keefe would go on to win their matches, while Roberts, playing at the number one, admirably lost an intense match. The Tigers defeated Mercersburg Academy 6-1 and clinched the victory of the Division Five National Championship.
The squash season featured not only the best season in school history, but also finished with a well-deserved victory for the five seniors on the team. Eli Drake, Henry Rich, Luke Edwards, Adam Henegan, and Cuatro Welder all made significant impacts on this year’s team and teams in the past. Without their contributions, the program wouldn’t be where it is today. The season also showed tremendous potential for the team of the future, as six members of the team, all playing in the top nine, will return for another season next year. At the beginning of the season, many members of the team weren’t even aware they would be going to Nationals, and now, thanks to the hard work put in by each and every player and the tireless dedication of coaches Paul Erb and Mark O’Donnell, they returned to Woodberry as National Champions.