For the second straight year, a third-ranked Princeton squash team beat the nation’s top ranked squad in an Ivy League contest at Jadwin Gymnasium. The women’s match against No. 1 Harvard on Sunday was closer than the men’s victory over then-No. 1 Yale last February, but the result was ultimately the same — a statement that Princeton is a true national title contender. In front of their home fans, the Tigers won nearly every close match to eke out a 5-4 victory, their first against Harvard since Princeton’s 2009 national championship season.
Just as in last year’s meeting in Cambridge — which Harvard, the eventual champion, won 5-4 — the match swung on a comeback at the No. 4 position. Last year, Lexi Saunders ’14 had two match points in the third game before ultimately losing in five; this year, Rachel Leizman ’16 fought off one match ball at 10-9 in the fifth game (on a referee’s decision that was disputed by the Harvard fans) and came back to win 12-10.
Leizman’s victory only gave the hosts a 4-3 lead, however, and the score was quickly evened when Amanda Sobhy, one of the world’s top 20 players, dispatched Julie Cerullo ’13 at No. 1. That left the match in the hands of Alex Sawin ’14, who took a 2-1 lead and then won a marathon fourth set, 16-14, to seal Princeton’s upset.
“There are always some matches that can go either way, and today they went in our favor,” said Nicole Bunyan ’15. “It was so much fun to watch.”
The Tigers don’t really have the typical look of a title contender; they rely less on senior leadership and more on youthful energy. Cerullo, a three-time All-America, is a veteran presence at the top of Princeton’s lineup, but she was the only senior in the team’s starting nine on Sunday.
Instead, the Tigers are built on players like Libby Eyre ’14 — who, despite a history of injuries, dove for at least a dozen attempted shots and left the court with bloody knees and knuckles after a four-game loss at No. 2 — and Bunyan, who beat Harvard’s Haley Mendez at No. 3. A British Columbia native who rose all the way from No. 8 to No. 2 in the lineup as a rookie last season, Bunyan relies on fitness and athleticism to grind down opponents such as Mendez, who struggled after a long second game.
Cerullo called Bunyan the team’s most “carefree” player, adding, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her stress out before, and that’s not easy to do at Princeton.” That came in handy on Sunday, when Bunyan blew a 9-5 lead in the first game by losing six straight points; unfazed, the sophomore recovered to win the next three games and the match. “Sometimes I use the first game to just see what’s going to happen,” she said. “I felt like I had a better sense of how [Mendez] played after the first game.”