One of the top college squash teams in the US chose Cayman as its training ground this week, leaving behind its concerns about the turning weather and an imposing Ivy League course load.
Princeton, the 2012 national champion, ended last year ranked No. 8 by the College Squash Association and has spent the past few days practicing at the South Sound Squash Club.
Cayman’s best players and Princeton’s line-up engaged in a 13-match exhibition sequence on Wednesday afternoon, and the visiting squad will return home this weekend to begin its season.
“We have our fall break. The guys don’t have classes this week,” said assistant coach Moustafa Hamada. “It gives us a good atmosphere and we get out of the bubble a bit. Here, it’s amazing. The hot weather and the training conditions, this is really going to help the guys. We’re here for the week and we’re very excited.”
Princeton’s squash team has a rich history, dating all the way back to 1930. But Hamada, who played at Trinity College, is part of another incredible legacy. Trinity has won 17 national championships since 1999, enjoying an unbelievable succession of 13 straight titles between 1999 and 2011.
Princeton famously broke that streak in an epic championship run in 2012, when Hamada was a freshman. But Trinity bounced back to win two more titles during Hamada’s playing career. Now, he’s trying to help mould the next generation of players, and he said the trip to Cayman allows his team a chance to break out of the monotony of preseason training.
“They’re still doing work but they have a nice background,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s a good bonding week for the team to get closer. Even to us as coaches, we get close with the guys and spend more time with them. We get to know them, especially the freshman and incoming guys. That helps a lot.”
Hamada said that the season will begin in earnest once Princeton returns home. Ivy League competition starts in November, and the team will have matches every weekend until mid-December. Then they’ll have a reduced schedule and take examinations in January before closing out the year in February.
Princeton is led by sophomore Youssef Ibrahim, who is currently ranked No. 44 by the Professional Squash Association. Hamada pointed to former Princeton player Todd Harrity, currently ranked No. 48 in the world, saying that Ibrahim has a bright future ahead of him in college and beyond.
“He’s a fulltime student. But in breaks, he goes and plays professional tournaments,” said Hamada.
“He just got back from Egypt two days ago and almost beat No. 28 in the world. He’s a sophomore this year and we really have high hopes for him. He could really become a national champion.”
Squash has become a year-round sport, said Hamada, and the physical routine changes depending on the time of year. Players work on conditioning in the summer and switch to speed work as the season draws closer. There’s a lot of bike work and a lot of stretching.
“You need pretty much everything,” he said. “You have to be flexible. You have to be very physically strong. You have to be mentally strong. It’s like chess on legs. … Squash is very explosive. It’s not just, ‘You’re going to run 10 miles and come back.’ That would help, but that’s not everything.”
Marlene West, a four-time Cayman national champion and manager of the South Sound Squash Club, said many of the local players are thrilled to share the courts with Princeton.
“The guys are really excited,” said West. “It’s always good to have the college team down because it just brings a little more buzz to the club. It’s a great way for the juniors being able to see where squash can take them. It’s not just a sport, but you can use it as an avenue for education as well.”
West, who won three gold medals at the 2019 Island Games, relishes the opportunity to see such high-calibre opponents up close.
“A lot of them – I think four of them – actually play on the pro circuit,” she said. “They obviously balance it very well, being in school and then playing on the pro circuit. But the level of play is significant.
“It’s great for our players, because we don’t get to travel off island that much.”