The reigning Ivy League champion Princeton women’s squash team thrived on both competition and camaraderie last year. A team chemistry, developed through the leadership of senior co-captains Julie Cerullo and Casey Cortes, as well as a deep and talented junior class, drove the team through one tough Ivy match after another.
Well, chemistry and talent. Championships don’t come without talent, and Princeton had plenty of it up and down the lineup.
And it doesn’t appear that any of that has changed this season. The 2013-14 Princeton women’s squash team, which opens play this weekend with matches against both Franklin & Marshall and Williams, returns eight starters and brings in a talented set of freshmen, including the top-ranked player at the U-19 level who could be called on to fill Cerullo’s shoes as the No. 1 player.
Depth has driven Princeton to multiple Ivy League and Howe Cup national championships over the last decade, and this team has the potential to use that same depth all the way to the 2014 Howe Cup final, which will be held in the Jadwin Squash Courts.
“Over the last few years, we have had strength at the top, as well as the middle and the back,” said head coach Gail Ramsay, who enters her 20th season as head coach. “I think this team is going to be strong all the way through as well. If they each play as well as they can, they can definitely have a lot of success overall.”
The senior class, which has made up a significant portion of the lineup since the day it walked on campus, now serves as leaders on and off the court. Senior co-captains Libby Eyre and Alex Sawin hold the two highest spots, while Lexi Saunders has as much big-match experience as anybody on the roster, and Caroline Feeley has over 20 varsity wins in her career.
Eyre is the ultimate competitor and arguably the face of the program right now. A relentless fighter, she nearly stunned the college squash world during a 3-2 loss in the CSA quarterfinals to former champion Millie Tomlinson last spring. She played No. 2 most of the year and won several key matches, including a 3-0 victory over Yale. With three years of collegiate experience to go along with both her talent and spirit, she should be one of Ramsay’s most dependable players this season.
Sawin has played mostly at the No. 6 and 7 spot throughout her career, and she has produced double-digit wins every year of her career. She played mostly No. 7 last season, meaning she was often part of the final shift, and her win at Harvard clinched the 5-4 upset of the Crimson. She was one of three Princeton players to earn wins over both Harvard and Yale, furthering her status as a big-match player for Princeton.
Saunders is a tireless competitor on the court, and Ramsay is hopeful that she can build on a fantastic run during the CSA individual championships, when she upset two seeded players en route to the Holleran Cup final. She had a team-best 15 wins last season, though none was more impressive than coming back from a 2-0 deficit against Penn. Like both Eyre and Sawin, she is a three-year varsity starter, and she won’t be overwhelmed by the moment regardless of where she plays in the lineup.
While those three seniors are likely to be part of the Top 9, there is a junior trio that can make the same claim. Nicole Bunyan, who has won 25 varsity matches in her first two years and may be playing her best squash this preseason, leads that group. A former All-America, Bunyan has played among the Top 3 and had a key win over Harvard last season.
Classmates Alex Lunt and Hallie Dewey figure to play in the middle of the lineup, and both bring different strengths to the court. Lunt is a tall, physical player who can power the ball around the court and wear opponents down, like she did in a 3-0 win at Yale. Dewey is tireless, retrieving balls and forcing extended rallies that pay off in the fourth and fifth games. Her comeback from 2-0 down against Harvard was a crucial turning point in Princeton’s biggest win of the season, and she ended up with a 13-2 record on the season.
Sophomore Rachel Leizman showed poise well beyond her years during the final shift of the 5-4 win over Harvard last season. Playing No. 4, the highest spot for any freshman at Princeton last season, she fought off a match ball and ultimately pulled out a 3-2 win. She added a win over Yale and finished the year in the Top 25. With a year of collegiate experience to build on, she could be one of the toughest middle-of-the-lineup players in the nation.
Classmate Tara Harrington matched a team high with 15 wins last season, including 10 during the regular season at the No. 8 spot. Like Leizman, she showed impressive toughness with a 3-2 win over Harvard, and she could provide the type of stability at the bottom of the lineup as the likes of Carly Grabowski and Katie Giovinazzo on past championship teams.
Both Leizman and Harrington proved freshmen could have positive impacts on championship teams, and Ramsay is hopeful that her new quartet of Tigers can do the same thing this season.
Leading the way is Maria Elena Ubina, the top-ranked U-19 player in the national and a four-time member of the U.S. World Junior team. Ubina will step right in for Cerullo at the No. 1 position, and while Ramsay expects some growing pains, she knows there is serious potential there as well.
“She is really talented,” Ramsay said. “It’s a lot of fun to watch her play. She is always thinking out there. She has really good hands and a wide variety of shots. She can hit almost any type of shot from anywhere on the court. She has an incredible sense of the court, and she sees a play as it develops.”
While Ubina will be the freshman that earns the most attention, Alexandra Toth could also be in line for a spot in the bottom third of the lineup. One of Canada’s top-ranked junior players, despite getting a late start to the sport, Toth could have one of the steepest levels of improvement as she adjusts to the collegiate game.
Gabriella Garr has been a Top-10 player at her age level, and she will compete with the likes of Feeley, Catherine Dennig, Hadley Chu, Isabella Bersani and Libbie Maine for spots around the Top 10. Freshman Ashley Richards is a walk-on after earning Team MVP honors at Greenwich Academy.
“They worked hard in captain’s practices, and when I got to see them together as a group, they looked fit and ready to go,” Ramsay said. “Those big matches last season will add to their confidence and their level of play this season.”