SCH senior number one Sean Kenny sizes up a forehand stroke during last week’s match against Haverford School. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

SCH senior number one Sean Kenny sizes up a forehand stroke during last week’s match against Haverford School. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

With longtime national power Episcopal Academy down on talent this winter, Haverford School has been considered the primary challenger in the Philadelphia area to the dominant team at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

SCH won the first meeting between the teams last month, chalking up a 7-2 tally on the road. Last Tuesday, the Blue Devils completed a series sweep of the Fords, playing in front of a capacity crowd at home and securing a convincing 8-1 victory.

Haverford’s lone individual win came in the number one position, but this was this last match out on the court, and SCH had already clinched the affair. The Blue Devils climbed to a 6-0 record, with the 7-2 outcome of the first Haverford bout holding up as their closest team score thus far. In that contest, the Fords were actually missing senior number four Ian Rothweiler, who was back in the line-up last week over at SCH.

In preparation for the rematch with Haverford, SCH coach Mike Jefferys said, “We revisited a continued theme, that we need to not just play defensively, but to get up on the offensive. We’ve focused on getting more comfortable with the attacking game.”

In the modern nine-player match format (which began to supersede the old seven-a-side alignment several years ago), team depth is even more important than in the past, and it’s one of the keys to the Blue Devils’ success. The strength of the program has grown to the point where a second varsity, a “B” team, has been introduced, and this group tends to play in situations where deploying the first string against a weaker opponent would produce an extremely lop-sided outcome.

“We have a bunch of very hard workers, guys who are determined to improve,” Jefferys explained. “They’re also thinkers; they want to figure out how to hit the shots and how to use the tactics. Most of all, they’re determined to play well in a sportsmanlike manner.”

Importantly for the continued vitality of the SCH franchise, the top players are willing to share their knowledge and experience.

Jefferys pointed out, “They think nothing of taking the time to play with the JV kids and with the middle school kids, and help them along. The young guys absolutely love it.”

With seniors on the top four rungs of the team ladder, and juniors in two of the next three positions, the Blue Devils knew that this would be their year to have a major impact on the squad scene. They’ve been building up to this point for several seasons.

“We’ve found in the past that we can compete with a lot of the top players, but never actually break through,” Jefferys related, “so we’re really concentrating this year on training to finish off the rallies, finish off the games, finish off the matches.”

Episcopal had dominated high school squash, regionally and nationally, for a number of years, but the Blue Devils had given the Churchmen a good run more than once, losing four matches to EA by 4-5 scores over the past four seasons. Episcopal is decidedly down in personnel this year, and in the first meeting of the current campaign, SCH raced past the visiting Churchmen, 9-0, on January 7.

Springside Chestnut Hill wanted to maintain its momentum heading into the Haverford rematch exactly one week later. The local squad received very strong performances from its players in the fifth through ninth spots, all winning in three straight games.

Junior number five Matt Giegerich went by Fords freshman Duncan Joyce, 11-2, 11-8, 11-0, and one rung below Blue Devils freshman Chris Dalglish won a tough opening game over sophomore Justin Shah, 12-10, then cruised, 11-2, 11-2.

An 11-4, 11-6, 11-7 victory at number seven was recorded by junior Brian Hamilton against visiting senior Dylan Henderson, and at number eight SCH freshman Zane Jeka got the better of senior Henry Ortmeyer, 11-7, 11-7, 11-8. Mindful of Coach Jefferys’ exhortation to finish off the close games, junior Michael Bown took two 12-10 rounds from Haverford sophomore Jimmy Tricolli, then ended the match with an 11-4 game.

A sixth 3-0 outcome occurred much higher up the ladder, as a pair of seniors squared off at number two. Here, host Phil Kelly put up scores of 11-8, 11-5, 11-5 against his guest, Thomas Walker. Kelly had missed the first few weeks of the 2013-14 schedule due to an injury he suffered during soccer season in the fall.

The one of two five-game engagements featured the Fords’ Rothweiler, who had missed the first encounter with the Devils, and another senior, Springside Chestnut Hill’s Mason Blake. Dropping the first frame, 8-11, Blake rebounded to capture the next two rounds, 11-4, 11-9. Rothweiler then forced a fifth game by winning the fourth, 11-5, but in the end Blake prevailed 11-5, picking up match point when a shot by Rothweiler struck the tin below the lower boundary line on the right side of the court.

Up one notch at number three, Blue Devils senior Brian Giegerich (brother of Matt) won the first and third games, 11-6, 11-9, while the second and fourth rounds went to Jay Losty, a Haverford junior, 11-8, 13-11. Giegerich then redoubled his efforts for an 11-4 clincher. Losty’s older sister, Margaux, is the number one player on the varsity girls’ team at Penn Charter.

Haverford was able to avoid going home empty-handed by winning the last individual contest of the day, the number one match. Here, Haverford junior Sean Hughes was able to reverse a 1-3 result from his December bout against SCH senior Sean Kenny. This time, the younger “Sean” came out on top, 11-6, 5-11, 11-8, 12-10.

Although players face each other one-on-one and squash is generally considered an individual sport, SCH’s Jefferys pointed out that in high school matches there’s definitely a team dynamic at work.

“When you’re playing on your own in a tournament situation, you’re just out there alone with your thoughts,” he observed. “In a team setting, there is an additional responsibility, along with additional encouragement. You don’t want to let the team down; you want to play your best for the other guys.”

Looking forward to the high school national championships, which will be held in the Philadelphia area at a number of different venues, the SCH skipper expects there will be several schools in the mix for the team title, including New England powers Brunswick Academy, Avon Old Farms, and Belmont Hill.

“There’s no absolutely dominant team that’s going to run away with it this year,” he said. “We need to get our fitness up, because everyone is going to have three or four tough matches. Late on that last Sunday afternoon, the ones who come out on top will be the guys who are strong enough, fit enough, and consistent enough to pull out the match.”