February 23, 2005: Sports
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Two stories beneath the basketball court at Jadwin Gym, fans of college squash come to see a different form of the “Princeton offense” each time Yasser El Halaby ’06 takes the floor. With a seemingly effortless, attacking style, the two-time national champion sweeps through a dizzying repertoire of scorching backhands and feathery drop shots as his opponents dart from wall to wall, trying to keep pace. It’s a show that even squash novices can appreciate, and seats are hard to come by.
“A lot of people don’t know squash,” explains co-captain Hugh Meighen ’05, “but they know Yasser.”
In March, El Halaby returns to the College Squash Association Championships, where he will try to become the first player to win three national titles in his first three collegiate seasons. If he succeeds, he’ll have a chance in 2006 to become the sport’s first four-time national champion.
The lofty expectations hardly seem to faze El Halaby, a native of Egypt who never had been to the United States before he enrolled at Princeton. The shy freshman who arrived three years ago is gone, replaced by a vocal leader who keeps his teammates loose with calm advice and an easy smile. With brother Hesham, 16, attending the nearby Lawrenceville School, El Halaby feels more at home this year. Off the court, he says, he’s discovered his “intellectual side.”
Five years ago, Princeton and college squash were a world away for El Halaby. The top junior in his international age group, he seemed destined for a career on the professional circuit. (In Egypt, the top squash pros are household names.) But El Halaby’s parents, Faisal and Azza, wanted him to go to college in the United States. They contacted Princeton coach Bob Callahan ’77 through a family friend, and Callahan kept the recruitment under wraps. “The only people I told were my wife and my assistant coach,” Callahan says, “and they were sworn to secrecy.”
El Halaby applied early decision and was admitted in December 2000, but since he was only 16 years old, he deferred for a year. In the fall of 2002, after dealing with post-9/11 visa delays, El Halaby arrived on campus the day after classes began. He met the team at a casual off-season practice, and his nerves seemed to show when he drilled his first serve into the tin grating at the bottom of the front wall (the equivalent of serving a tennis ball into the bottom of the net). “There were some tense faces for a second,” Meighen recalls.
But before long, El Halaby earned his place as the team’s top player. In a February 2003 match at Yale that would determine the Ivy League championship, he rallied from two games down to beat one of his most formidable rivals, Julian Illingworth, and helped the Tigers lock up the Ivy title. With only one loss that season, El Halaby was the favorite to win the national individual title. But days before the championship tournament he came down with the flu, and he was forced to rest in bed between matches on the opening day.
In the semifinals, El Halaby dropped the first two games to Trinity’s Michael Ferreira before recovering to win the third. By the middle of the fourth game, the freshman’s illness seemed to be overcoming his fitness, but Callahan says he simply “found a way” to win. The next day, after a much-needed night of rest, El Halaby swept teammate Will Evans ’03 in the national final.
The 2003—04 season was a smoother road for El Halaby. He lost once, late in the year to Illingworth, but he cruised in the CSA tournament, winning five straight matches without losing a game. Teammate Preston Comey ’07 says El Halaby can string together wins because of his efficient style. “He’s so explosively fast, but when you’re watching him play, it looks like he’s walking around the court,” Comey says. “He makes the hardest things look easy.”
Despite El Halaby’s overwhelming talent, another national title is far from guaranteed, says Callahan, a onetime national champion. International players have made college squash more competitive, and in a single elimination tournament, a hot opponent or a minor injury can quickly reverse a player’s fortune. El Halaby carries the additional pressure of being the favorite and the defending champion, but he seems comfortable with the situation, ready to prove himself again. When asked about his chance at making history, he smiles and pauses.
“I try not to think about it,” he says, “but I can’t help myself.”
Anight after dropping its Ivy League opener for the first time in nearly a decade, the Princeton men’s basketball team seemed headed for more disappointment as Yale held the lead for the first 19 minutes at Jadwin Gym Jan. 29. But backup center Mike Stephens ’05 helped his team pull ahead, scoring 11 consecutive Princeton points in the second half. The Tigers won 58–42 and improved to 1–1 in the league.
Princeton had opened against Brown, and the Bears took advantage of sluggish defense to grab an early lead before the Tigers recovered with a 9–0 run to finish the opening half. Brown regained the advantage early in the second half and Princeton challenged again, pulling within two. But when Bears’ forward Luke Ruscoe made a layup, a foul shot, and a three-pointer in a 50-second stretch late in the game, the Tigers ran out of answers, falling 57—52.
“We’ve got tons of things to work on,” Princeton coach Joe Scott ’87 said following the Brown game. “Unfortunately for us, they’re the same things we’ve been working on. That’s the quandary.”
Defense was one of Scott’s primary concerns after the Bears converted nearly 60 percent of their field goal attempts against Princeton. But the Tigers responded against Yale, holding their opponents to 41 percent shooting, including 25 percent in the second half. Stephens starred on both ends with 23 points, five rebounds, three blocked shots, and two assists.
Goaltender Roxanne Gaudiel ’06 spent most of her first two years on the women’s hockey team waiting, watching from the bench as teammate Megan Van Beusekom ’04 staked her claim to All-Ivy honors. Coach Jeff Kampersal ’92 figured Gaudiel would be a capable replacement, but entering the 2004—05 season, he wondered how the team would respond to a new player in front of the net.
“The biggest thing for a goalie, besides stopping the puck, is having your teammates have confidence in you,” Kampersal said.
Gaudiel wasted little time earning her teammates’ trust. She recorded three shutouts in a two-week span in November and December, and through Feb. 3, she compiled the nation’s third-best save percentage, stopping 94.1 percent of the shots she faced. Her steady play has emerged as one of the few things the Tigers can count on in a season marked by injuries on defense and inconsistency on offense.
For the Princeton attack, sophomores Laura Watt, Liz Keady, and Kim Pearce have led the way, combining for 21 goals and 26 assists. Watt moved to defense in late January, after Christina Norwich ’06 broke her ankle in a game against New Hampshire. Becky Stewart ’05, a captain and defensive stalwart, has also missed time this year with a back injury.
Throughout the season, Kampersal said, the team has responded to challenges, showing remarkable chemistry. In the East Coast Athletic Conference, which includes four of the nation’s top 10 teams, the ninth-ranked Tigers are in position to make the playoffs, with a chance at home ice in the quarterfinal round. Princeton has played in the ECAC playoffs each of the last three years, reaching the semi-finals once.
Junior Becky Brown scored her 1,000th career point for WOMEN’S BASKETBALL Jan. 29 as the Tigers edged Yale 56—52, improving to 9—6 for the season. Brown, the 14th Princeton woman to score 1,000 points, has averaged more than 20 points per game in a seven-game stretch dating back to Dec. 20.
WOMEN’S SOCCER coach Julie Shackford was named Coach of the Year by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America on Jan. 14. In her 10th season at Princeton, Shackford’s team posted a 19–3 record and reached the Women’s College Cup Final Four.
The Friends of Princeton Wrestling finished their campaign to establish an endowment of more than $3 million for the WRESTLING team on Jan. 25, just weeks before the program celebrated its 100th anniversary.
WOMEN’S SQUASH fell to No. 1-ranked Yale on Jan. 29, losing for the first time this season, but the Tigers swept Amherst and Williams the following day to improve to 8-1. Princeton ranks third in the nation behind Yale and Trinity.