When you list the greatest Princeton squash players of this century, you won’t mention Dylan Ward very early.
When you list the most important Princeton squash careers of this century, you can’t mention Dylan Ward early enough.
In an era that has brought both individual champions and team championships in bunches to Princeton, there have been few four-year journeys — if any — as astounding as Ward’s. He went from a freshman outside the Top 10 to somebody who won three of the most important matches in program history, and he ended his career with an All-America honor that was a testament as much to work ethic as it was to talent.
Ward was a Top-5 player at both the U-17 and U-19 level, though he never reached the Top 3, and his freshman season at Princeton amounted to a pair of varsity wins over Penn and Navy.
He was clearly a good player, but nobody could have expected him to walk into Harvard and steal away an Ivy League title from the favored Crimson. But that was what he did on Jan. 15, 2012, when his 3-1 upset of Zeke Scherl gave the Tigers a 5-4 win at Harvard that ultimately earned Princeton an Ivy League title.
It was a far more prepared Ward that day, thanks to a more mental–based training for the match.
“Coach Callahan and Neil and I were watching tape that week and we really tried to study his game to make sure I was ready,” Ward said. “I hadn’t really done that before, but it was something Bob and Neil really emphasized, the game strategy, being able to visually analyze every aspect of the game on the court.”
The Tigers, after back-to-back years of finishing second in the Ivy League, were expected to finish no better that year, but a gutsy win by classmate Ash Egan helped set Ward up for some late heroics. After dropping a 13-11 opener, he took Scherl out in four games to stun the host Crimson and set up the path to an Ivy League title.
And, as it turned out, a national championship.
During the second shift of the national final against Trinity, Ward and his third-shift teammates, Todd Harrity and Kelly Shannon, needed to get away from the capacity crowd in Jadwin on Feb. 19, 2012.
They made their way to the locker room to detach from the emotion of the event. They didn’t know what was happening on the court, which was good, because Trinity was in the midst of sweeping the middle shift and moving to the brink of a 14th straight national title.
“We came down to the conclusion that it was going to come down to us, and the reaction wasn’t a timid one,” he said. “We weren’t scared. We were all very confident in each other. We all knew individually that we could do it for each other. It was all very inspiring, and we all went out there knowing this was our moment.”
Ward took Court 4 against Juan Flores, whom he had beaten during the regular season. Despite a sizable lead, Ward made a string of errors and dropped an 11-8 game. He left the court infuriated and returned rejuvenated, all because of a miscalculation.
You see, he thought Princeton had already lost.
“When I lost that game, Sammy Kang lost his match, and I thought we had lost,” he said. “I’ve never felt that demoralized. The roller coaster of emotion that cranked through me, I’ve never felt anything like that.”
When his teammates told him they needed him, it was all Ward had to here. After all, while the victories and titles will be celebrated forever, it will be those relationships that Ward treasures most about his time at Princeton.
“Winning a ring is wonderful, but looking back on my experiences, I’ll care more about the people than the national title, or the Ivy League titles,” he said. “Other people have those things, but I have these relationships and these great friends that I hope to have for the rest of my life.”
But that ring is wonderful, and he returned to Court 4 seeking that ring. He crushed Flores 11-1 in the second game, then won a pair of close games to move the Tigers to a 4-3 deficit. Harrity and Shannon … well, you know the rest.
The journey to arguably the most surprising Ivy League title in program history began with a crushing phone call one week after the CSA national championship.
“Hearing the news from Coach was incredibly gut-wrenching,” Ward said of receiving the news of Callahan’s tumor discovery. “We were all beside ourselves for a while. For Coach to have the guts to coach us for another year was incredible, and there really was no way for us to pay him back for what he did for the program.
“Winning that title for him was the best we could do,” he added. “We all gave our hearts out there.”
It was out there on Jan. 13, 2013, when Ward — who had moved from No. 11 to No. 4 in two seasons — was back on the court for a third shift. This time, he was back at Jadwin against Harvard in a match that would set the winning team on another championship path.
Ward followed senior Steve Harrington, who overcame injury for a 3-1 win at the fifth spot, and had another chance to claim a stunning team victory. (For context on that Harvard team, the top six Crimson players that day were part of the Top 9 that won the 2014 national title by a 9-0 score over Trinity.)
Ward faced Tyler Olson, and he was not going to be denied. He actually controlled most of the match, including an 11-2 win in the fourth game that sealed the team win. Princeton added a road win at Yale to help secure the Ivy team title, the final one in the storied career of Callahan.
Those three matches helped clinch championships in the third shift of 5-4 wins. They are pressure situations in which one win out of three can make a career, much less three. And they can be the type of wins you rest your laurels on when a team faces an uphill journey like the one Princeton faced this past season.
But resting isn’t Ward’s game.
“He’s extremely fit,” said Sean Wilkinson, who took over as head coach for the 2013-14 season. “I’ve tried to break him in bike sessions, fitness sessions, and I just can’t do it. It’s almost just a determination to succeed, to do it right.”
Wilkinson took over a team that had lost seven of its Top 9 players from the 2012 national championship team, and two of its Top 5 from the 2013 Ivy champion. Throw in a few early-season injuries, including one that hampered All-America Tyler Osborne all season, and Princeton found itself in an uphill climb from Day 1. It couldn’t have been how Ward hoped to go out, but he never stopped leading the group, and the team seemed to follow his lead.
“Dylan was a perfectionist and showed grit when he got into competition-overdrive mode, which occurred every match he played,” junior Taylor Tutrone said. “He seemed to perform above his already great natural ability, which goes to show that constant effort tends to pay off in any endeavor.”
Princeton ended the year as the B Flight winners at the CSA Championships, and Ward was able to walk away with his head held high.
“It was a tough season, but I think we can be incredibly proud of how we played,” Ward said. “I left that Columbia match really proud of all of our players. We still fought as a team, regardless of the outcome. That is what inspired me this season, seeing guys play No. 12 or 13 six months ago playing in spots that they probably didn’t think they might play until their senior year.”
Realistically, you don’t find many players who begin at No. 12 as a freshman and are successful Top 5 players by their senior year. There is typically a unique talent level that is in place for a future All-America, and that talent level rarely starts outside the Top 9.
So whatever Ward had was even more unique.
“He had a lot of tools that people undervalue,” Wilkinson said. “Mentally, he is phenomenally strong. Whether it was at practice, in fitness sessions, he is so mentally strong that he just doesn’t know how to stop at any point. He never panics. If he’s down in a game, it doesn’t really mean much to Dylan, because he just hits the reset button and starts again.”
Let’s be clear about this, though; Ward had talent. He was a long, powerful hitter who got to everything and kept the ball deep. He wasn’t a pure shotmaker, but he could control the flow of the point and keep his opponent on the defensive.
Those skills would have been enough for a fine career, but it was the mental edge that put Ward on the brink of All-America honors heading into the CSA individual championships. He needed an opening round win over Trinity’s Vrishab Kotian to have a real shot at the Top 20 and a first All-America honor, and he dispatched the Trinity No. 3 in three games.
His Round of 16 opponent was eventual champion Ali Farag, who was undefeated in 2013-14 and dropped only one game in the whole tournament. During his first four matches, he lost 17 points or fewer in three of them. Ward, somehow, took 23 off him. He even had a game ball in the second, though he would ultimately drop that game 13-11.
Still, he had a game ball. Against Farag.
“It clicked that I was serving for game ball, and I was thinking how great this could be,” said Ward, who was called for a stroke on the point. “It was a quick moment, but I loved it all the same. I’ll cherish that.”
There was plenty for Ward to cherish during his four years at Princeton, but also plenty for Princeton to cherish about Ward. In many ways, he represents everything that has made the Tigers successful, and what will make them successful again.
He played for his teammates and his coaches. He played because he loved Princeton, and he loved to win. He played hard, and he played fair.
And even if Dylan Ward’s name isn’t the first you remember about Princeton squash, his wins were the ones you’ll never forget.