Though injuries had made a mess of her senior season, Libby Eyre was determined to get back on the court for the 2014 Howe Cup.
As both teammates and opponents can attest, a determined Libby Eyre can never be counted out.
“Libby plays to win,” junior teammate Nicole Bunyan said. “That’s one of the things I admire most about her, and one of the things that I have learned from her: it doesn’t matter if you’re not playing well that day, you make yourself play well. And if you’re not playing well, you find a way to grind it out and to win. She won’t come off that court until she has left some blood on it—literally.”
That drive, a fierce competitiveness that has garnered multiple All-America honors, didn’t develop at Princeton. Libby brought it from her most original role —the youngest of the four Eyre daughters.
“I am such a competitive person,” said Libby, whose older sisters Ashley, Avery and Toby all played college squash. “They would come home from college, and I would want to be better than them. It motivated me, and it made me more competitive.”
That level of young pressure in a sport can drive many away, but Libby wasn’t solely focused on squash throughout her childhood. It was the success of Toby, the one closest in age to Libby, at Williams College that convinced the youngest Eyre to focus on college squash.
“I always liked [squash], but I didn’t love it at the beginning,” Eyre said. “I thought I would play lacrosse or soccer. But when I saw my sister Toby’s college experience in squash, I wanted that for myself. And I have grown to love it even more since I got to Princeton.”
Toby Eyre was a four-time All-America, and she was one of numerous generations of the Eyre family to graduate from Williams College. Ashley was the first of the four, and she was a Top 25 player, while Avery played in the Top 5 at Dartmouth. Toby had the best collegiate career of the trio, but Libby wanted to make her name someplace new.
“It’s hard being the youngest of four, and always being compared to them,” Eyre said. “My dad, grandfather and sisters all went to Williams, and I just wanted something new and different. For me, I always wanted to go to Princeton.”
Eyre isn’t simply an intangible player. She has legitimate racket skills to go along with terrific speed around the court. Those alone would have made her a valuable contributor to any Top 9 around the country.
But they wouldn’t have made her a four-time All-America. That’s a totally different level.
“She just didn’t want to lose,” Ramsay said. “She probably hates losing more than she likes winning. She never gives you anything easy. If you’re going to beat her, you have to play your best game.
“When she is feeling pretty good physically, she can play with anybody in the Top 5,” Ramsay added. “She just refuses to lose. She is fast, she can get to anything, and she is relentless.”
Unfortunately, it was her physical well-being that ultimately kept getting in Eyre’s way. She won 12 matches as a freshman, but she needed surgery after the season. Confident that she would be healed fully for her final three seasons, she rehabbed with energy and confidence.
But then came a shoulder injury. And it would be one battle after another.
“This year, it just all fell apart,” she said. “It’s never easy to stay focused on the rehab and keep motivated, but playing so high on the ladder, I knew I had to get back if my team would have a shot at anything, and that was a big motivator for me. I loved my team this year, and I really wanted us to do well.”
Her teammates saw that fight on a daily basis.
“Libby would spend a lot of practices in the training room or on the bike in order to rehab her shoulder (and later on her hamstring), which meant she wasn’t always on court for every single practice,” Bunyan said. “Nevertheless, if she was allowed by the trainer to be on court for 30 minutes that day, she would make that the hardest, most productive 30 minutes she could. Even though she had to limit her time on court during practice, she would more than make up for it during matches.
This is what made her such a great leader,” she added. “Libby would lead by example, and show everyone that she was determined to give 110% for the sake of the team.”
There were moments of health, and those often led to moments of brilliance. None was greater than her performance in 2013, when she led Princeton to a surprising Ivy League championship and finished as a First-Team All-America for the second straight season.
“We didn’t even expect to win, and sometimes that can really change how you play,” she said. “For our team, it helped that we were the underdog, and nobody really expected us to win. With less pressure, people were able to play their best squash.”
Eyre carried that into the individual national championships, where she reached the quarterfinals and took on 2011 champion Millie Tomlinson of Yale. With nothing to lose, she took the match to Tomlinson and led 2-1 before falling 11-7 and 11-6.
“I had watched Millie play against Julie [Cerullo] and Jackie [Moss], and I was just amazed,” she said. “She didn’t look like she ever made mistakes, and she could get everything. I went out there knowing it was my last match of the season, and I had nothing to lose. You can sort of surprise yourself when you just play without thinking.”
Unfortunately, there was probably a bit too much thinking that went into the past season for the women’s squash team. As reigning Ivy League champions, and returning eight of the top nine players from last season, the Tigers felt the pressure to repeat that never bothered them the previous season. That, combined with Eyre’s constant injury battles, turned 5-4 matches that were 2013 victories into 2014 losses.
Princeton knew it had the talent to transform a disappointing regular season into a national championship at the Howe Cup, and Eyre was determined to be part of it. Simply getting on the court at the No. 2 position would allow her teammates to play at their projected spots in the lineup.
Eyre, however, had more on her mind than simply playing the match.
“I don’t think anybody on the team was counting me as a win, but I worked hard with Gail all week, watched film to try to figure out how to hurt my opponent,” Eyre said of her wild 11-7, 11-5, 7-11, 6-11, 11-9 win over Kimberley Hay. “I was really happy with the win, but unfortunately, five of us couldn’t come together that day.”
Eyre went on to nationals and clinched her fourth All-America honor, matching Toby in that honor.
Of course, it’s not like the two need another reason for competition.
“It’s sort of known around Thanksgiving that the Eyre sisters are all going to be playing against each other, and to stay away from the courts for a while,” she said. “My older sisters play each other a ton now in New York City, and Toby has followed Ashley and knocks her off the top.”
When asked if she was the best right now, her answer was simple.
A competitor until the end.
Eyre will be heading to New York City next year to work at Barclays, and will undoubtedly be back on the squash courts. And she leaves Princeton with one of the program’s six Ivy League championships.
But she leaves with far more than just that. Even the ultimate competitor knows that it was everything outside the competition that enhanced her Princeton experience.
“I can’t even imagine what it would have been like not to play squash here,” she said. “From September to March, you eat dinner with your teammates every single night. You give up 3-4 hours every day, and every weekend in the winter, you don’t see anybody but your team, but I had awesome, amazing teammates all four years. I’ll stay close with all my teammates for the rest of my life.”