Senior David Pena spent two months working tirelessly just to get the opportunity to play in the biggest weekend of his collegiate career. That work paid off for both himself and his Ivy League champion teammates, who earned a berth in Sunday's national championship match with a gutsy 7-2 victory over Cornell.
And the Tigers will face a very familiar opponent, as top-seeded Trinity won a marathon over fourth-seeded Harvard 6-3. Trinity won three matches by 3-2 scores and two others by 3-1 scores; overall, the match took 40 games (out of a maximum 45). On the flip side, Princeton played a total of 36 games in its semifinal win.
Princeton will play in its first national final since the historic 6-hour epic against Trinity in 2009 when it takes on the 14-time champion Bantams Sunday at 12:30 on the Jadwin Squash Courts. Admission is free to the event, and all three courts will be streamed live on GoPrincetonTigers.TV.
Though the 7-2 final score looks convincing, it doesn't tell the story of a heart-stopping match between the host school and the upstart Big Red, which was coming off an 8-1 quarterfinal win over third-seeded Yale Saturday. Cornell forced three of the first six matches to go the distance and had three match balls in one, but Princeton took all three to establish control of the match.
Princeton picked up the first point when senior Clay Blackiston won a convincing 3-0 match over Arjun Gupta at the No. 6 spot. Blackiston was pushed in the first game, but he controlled the second two for wins of 11-5 and 11-4 to open a 1-0 lead.
At the time, it looked like that would be all for Princeton in the first shift. Freshman Tyler Osborne trailed 2-0 at No. 3, but he rallied to win the third and was close throughout the fourth against Big Red veteran Thomas Spettigue. Cornell would get the fourth game 11-9 to even the match.
Meanwhile, Pena was in dire straits at the No. 9 match. Trailing 2-0 after letting a lead in the second game get away, Pena dug in against Rishi Jalen. One week earlier, Jalen had topped Pena at Jadwin, but Pena battled back for wins of 11-7 and 11-7 to force the fifth. Jalen had the early edge and built a 10-7 lead, but Pena fought off three match balls to the roaring delight of the capacity crowd.
"It was the best feeling," Pena said of the crowd reaction. "I thought it played a huge role in my comeback. It was the difference. I could feel everybody behind me. I felt strong."
Pena finally built a 12-11 lead and put the match away, which ignited both the arena and his teammates. On the next court, freshman Samuel Kang was going back and forth with Cornell's Will Hartigan. Kang won the first and third games, but Hartigan took a 13-11 decision in the fourth to force a clinching game. The Tiger freshman, who has shown incredible maturity in countless pressure moments, grabbed the early lead and never looked back. Though Hartigan cut it to 10-8, Kang got the winner to give Princeton a 3-1 lead.
Junior Steve Harrington played Ryan Todd in three tight games at the No. 8 position, but he had all of the big points late to score an 11-9, 12-10, 14-12 victory. Harrington got down deep in the third, but as was Princeton's way throughout the semifinal, he dug himself out for the win.
That left Princeton one match from the final, but Cornell still had plenty of strength in the lineup, and it had a 2-0 lead at the No. 2 position. Tiger senior Chris Callis trailed 2-0 to Cornell's Alex Domenick, who also happened to be one of Callis' best friends.
"He got off to that 2-0 lead on a lot of my errors," said Callis, who is one of two Princeton players who started in the 2009 national final against Trinity. "I knew the last thing I wanted to do was lose to Alex in our final competitive match. So I stuck with it, stopped trying to hit winners and started moving him around the court."
He pointed to one particular rally in the third that he felt established control back for Callis, and he never looked back. After wins of 11-9 and 11-4, he sent Princeton back to the championship with an 11-7 victory.
"I'm so happy to be back," Callis said. "It was hard to appreciate those matches four years ago, but looking back, our regular season match and national final might have been the two best collegiate matches ever. We have a level of appreciation of getting here. For us seniors, it has come full circle now."
Princeton finished the match by winning two of the final three. Sophomore Dylan Ward, who provided the clinching win in the regular season 5-4 win at Harvard, avenged his only Ivy loss of the regular season with a 3-0 win over Owen Butler. Junior Todd Harrity defeated Nick Sachvie at No. 1 in a rematch of the 2011 national individual final by a 3-0 score, and senior Kelly Shannon fell 3-2 to talented freshman Aditiya Jagtap at the No. 4 spot.
Now, finally, Princeton can look ahead to a national championship match. Trinity has won each of the last 13 titles, while the Tigers haven't won one since 1993. They have been in the final in each of the last three championships hosted by Jadwin, and they have fallen 5-4 to Trinity in each.
Now Princeton gets another chance to change the ending.
"I'm a senior, so this is it," Pena said. "This is my last chance. It's great."
#2 PRINCETON 7, #6 CORNELL 2
1 – Todd Harrity (P) d. Nick Sachvie 5,4,7
2 – Chris Callis (P) d. Alex Domenick (8),(7),9,4,7
3 – Thomas Spettigue (C) d. Tyler Osborne 7,8,(9),9
4 – Aditiya Jagtap (C) d. Kelly Shannon 5,(9),7,(9),9
5 – Samuel Kang (P) d. William Hartigan 8,(7),7,(11),8
6 – Clay Blackiston (P) d. Arjun Gupta 9,5,4
7 – Dylan Ward (P) d. Owen Butler 10,9,4
8 – Samuel Harrington (P) d. Ryan Todd 9,10,12
9 – David Pena (P) d. Rishi Jalen (8),(11),7,7,11