One year after a missed match ball left Princeton with a heartbroken trip home from Boston, the deep, talented Tiger roster turned the tables on the top-ranked team in the country. Freshman Rachel Leizman fought off a match ball to win at No. 4, and junior Alex Sawin finished the job with a late comeback in the fourth game at No. 7.
The win keeps the fourth-ranked Princeton women's squash team unbeaten in both the Ivy League (2-0) and overall (5-0), but most importantly, it gives the Tigers their first victory over Harvard since 2009. That was also the last time Princeton won the Ivy League women's squash title.
While this win will certainly bolster Princeton's chances, there is still a long journey ahead for the Tigers. Unbeaten Yale will likely move to the No. 1 spot, and the Bulldogs host Princeton Feb. 2 in New Haven. Fifth-ranked Penn pushed Harvard in a 6-3 loss Saturday, and the Quakers will travel to Jadwin for Princeton's next match on Jan. 30 at 5 pm.
But to be 2-0 after this daunting weekend was everything head coach Gail Ramsay could have hoped for.
"I felt all along that, on a good day, that it would come down to whoever wanted it the most," Ramsay said. "Harvard fought hard and they’re a very good team, but today, we had the determination to get it done. I’m proud of the team's performance overall. We battled to the end."
With the match tied at 3-3 heading into the final shift, and with former Junior World champion Amanda Sobhy taking the court for Harvard at No. 1, Princeton knew it would need to sweep at No. 4 and No. 7. Leizman, the highest-ranked freshman on the Princeton squad, played a marathon against Michelle Gemmell. She trailed 10-9 in the fifth, but found a way to score the next three points and clinch a 3-2 win.
"I think it shows a lot about [Rachel's] character," Sawin said. "If there is one person I would have picked to play Michelle, it’s her. She is one of the most stable players on our team. She had never been tested like that here, but she constantly impresses me."
Sawin played on the next court, and she consistently had to deal with loud cheers at Jadwin throughout the first two games while Leizman's match concluded. Once Sawin knew her younger teammate had pulled off the win, she got down to business against Sarah Mumanachit. The Tiger junior took the third game for a 2-1 lead, but found herself trailing 5-1 in the fourth.
"I think I was so excited that I made a lot of unforced errors," Sawin said. "I calmed down and stuck to the game plan. All I thought about was 'one point at a time.' I wasn't thinking about winning the game, just winning each point."
It got to 9-9, and then the two went on the see-saw, trading and fighting off game (or match) balls. At 15-14, Sawin finally put it away and bent over in both joy and exhaustion on the center of the court.
"As a junior, I had never beaten Harvard," she said. "Every year, I said we can do it. This year, it felt more possible. Our lineup is so strong, and everybody is playing great. I knew going into today, saying let’s beat Harvard really meant more than it ever did.
"This is about the most intense match I’ve played in my college career," she added.
Princeton took care of business early, going up 2-1 after the first shift. Sophomore Nicole Bunyan scored a 3-1 win at the No. 3 position (after dropping the opening game), and freshman Tara Harrington took control in the fifth game of her match at No. 9. After splitting four close games, Harrington posted an 11-3 win to take the match.
"I started the match out nervous with this being my second Ivy League match," said Harrington, whose brother Steve is the men's co-captain and was part of the 2012 national champion team. "I was so happy to get the first game, and I think by the fourth game, I was so much more relaxed. I started to play my game, and I was really motivated. I felt so relaxed in the fifth game. I stayed patient, but I was also aggressive."
Harvard picked up wins at No. 2 and No. 5, and the Crimson led 2-0 at the No. 8 spot. Princeton sophomore Hallie Dewey, who had been dealing with an injury earlier in the season, shook the rust off just in time for a critical comeback. She scored wins of 11-3 and 11-6 to force a decisive fifth game, and she pulled through with a huge 11-9 win to give Princeton its third victory of the day.
Dewey came off the court and hugged Sawin, who said she would win it for her. In truth, though, this tight-knit squad has always done it for each other.
"We were doing it for everybody on the team," Sawin said. "We definitely wanted to win one for the seniors, but we really wanted to win one with them. It's for everybody."
And it was thrilling.
#4 PRINCETON 5, #1 HARVARD1) Amanda Sobhy (H) d. Julie Cerullo 3,4,4
2) Laura Gemmell (H) d. Libby Eyre 6,(8),5,7
3) Nicole Bunyan (P) d. Haley Mendez (9),8,6,9
4) Rachel Leizman (P) d. Michelle Gemmell (9),7,9,(7),10
5) Saumya Karki (H) d. Alex Lunt 7,2,8
6) Natasha Kingshott (H) d. Lexi Saunders 8,2,5
7) Alex Sawin (P) d. Sarah Mumanachit 4,(10),5,14
8) Hallie Dewey (P) d. Isabelle Dowling (5),(10),3,6,9
9) Tara Harrington (P) d. Megan Murray 10,(8),9,(7),3