Two-Time Ivy Champ Squash Opens Season Embracing Underdog Status
It’s safe to say that Sean Wilkinson hasn’t gone through a seven-month stretch like the one he just experienced.
On May 5, when he received his first head coaching job, Wilkinson replaced Bob Callahan, a legendary head coach in both the Princeton and college squash community. His next two months were spent trying to soak up every ounce of information he could on both his players and the University.
He spent much of July and August both at camps and abroad, while also turning his eyes toward future Princeton classes. He then met freshmen that he didn’t get to know on their own recruiting trail, while spending his first preseason working with a team that graduated two of its top five players last year.
On Saturday, finally, he can just go coach a match. And he can’t wait.
“I’m just so excited for this weekend,” Wilkinson said. “Ivy Scrimmages was big for me to see us get a win under our belts, and we did that against Cornell. It’s important that we start well against F&M this weekend. I can’t wait to be back in that competitive environment this weekend, and I think the guys are excited as well.”
Not only are they excited, but they find themselves well under the radar. Two years after stunning the squash community with a 5-4 win over Trinity for the 2012 national championship, both the head coach and six starters from that team have either graduated or retired.
Three starters remain, and it is a trio that Wilkinson knows can provide a championship-level foundation.
Senior Dylan Ward burst on the scene two years ago and provided several key wins, including the first of three wins during the final-shift rally past Trinity. After going 15-1 that season, he moved up three spots in the lineup and still posted 13 victories. He proved again to be one of Princeton’s best big-match performers, clinching a 5-4 upset of Harvard with a 3-1 victory.
Ward almost topped that feat in the CSA semifinals, pushing former Harvard No. 1 Gary Power through five tough games before ultimately falling short. He made his debut in the ‘A’ draw at the individual championships, and he is one player Wilkinson knows exactly what he’ll get each time he takes the court.
The junior duo of Samuel Kang and Tyler Osborne will provide one of the nation’s best 1-2 punches, though filling Harrity’s shoes atop the lineup will be a daunting challenge for either.
Kang played No. 2 most of last season and earned All-America honors with his tireless, retrieving style of play. He ended the year ranked ninth nationally, and you could learn everything you need to know about Kang from two matches against Harvard opponents last season. In the regular season, he helped earn a 5-4 win over the Crimson with a five-set thriller at No. 2; late in the match, he overcame both an opponent’s rally and a severe cramp with a diving winner that helped secure a 3-2 victory.
At the CSA individual championships, he nearly pulled off the shocker of the weekend. Against Ali Farag, the 2012 national champion, Kang actually split the first two games and was at 9-9 in the fourth before falling 11-9. That match should give Kang added confidence when he faces the top players in the country.
Osborne has played in the Top 3 throughout his career, and his win against Trinity in the 2012 final was arguably the biggest of the match. He has gone 31-4 in his first two seasons, both of which ended with All-America honors, and his lone loss last season was a 3-1 defeat in the CSA quarterfinals to eventual champion Amr Khalifa of St. Lawrence.
Osborne is both technically sound and a relentless competitor, and now he has two years of experience against the nation’s best to build upon. His level of play will need to rise as he moves into one of the top two spots, but Wilkinson is more than confident that Osborne will be ready.
That trio certainly won’t fly under the radar.
It’s the rest of the roster that is hoping to earn some national respect this season.
The junior duo of Taylor Tutrone and David Hoffman both went from the Gilman School to Princeton, and each made their debut in the varsity lineup last season. Tutrone has made one of the biggest leaps in the offseason and finds himself at the No. 4 spot to start the season. He can build off a 3-1 victory over Harvard during the CSA semifinal, a win that nearly helped Princeton return to the final.
Hoffman played No. 7 last season and will probably play somewhere in that area this year, though he does it as a far more experienced competitor. Hoffman won 10 matches during his first season in the varsity lineup, though none was bigger than a 3-2 road win at Yale during a tight 6-3 Tiger win.
The two freshmen who earned a significant amount of varsity time last year were Michael LeBlanc and Vivek Dinodia. LeBlanc played No. 9 for much of last season, but a productive preseason could lead LeBlanc to the middle of the lineup this year. Dinodia is the reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year, and he is building off a victory in the CSA Molloy Cup during the 2013 postseason.
A third sophomore who could see significant varsity time is Sam Ezratty, who has arguably made the biggest jump in the offseason.
“Sam Ezratty has really come on by leaps and bounds,” Wilkinson said. “He played about 10 or 11 last year, and maybe cracked the lineup once or twice, but he just won another challenge match recently, which is so big for him. That’s huge for him, because he needs to bring that confidence with him.”
There is a precedent for a sophomore to make a real impact after limited varsity experience during his first season. Ward took that role in 2012 and helped Princeton win a national championship, while both Tutrone and Hoffman did it during an Ivy championship performance last season.
A pair of lesser-known names could also become factors this season, though they will do it on opposite ends of the experience level. Senior tri-captain Ash Egan has spent most of his career on the J.V., though his 2012 victory over Harvard at the No. 9 spot was critical in earning Princeton that Ivy League championship.
Freshman Manik Datta was ranked No. 2 at the U-17 level in India, as well as No. 9 at the U-17 level in Asia, and he is probably the one member of the Class of 2017 who could make an immediate impact this season. Wilkinson sees promise in both Michael East and Ben Leizman, but he believes both will need to work hard on their game this year.