Squash makes a comeback as youth leagues spring up

January 17, 2018

STAMFORD — Marcus Ashcraft is enclosed in a four-walled court, darting and lunging to rally a frenzied rubber ball with his coach.

The 12-year-old from Darien is deeply focused on his squash lesson.

Most of us know squash as an indoor racquet sport, even if we can’t say how it differs from racquetball (an entirely different racquet-and-rubber-ball-based sport). But what may be news to most is how the sport, long associated with exclusive athletic clubs, is soaring in popularity with the younger set, who enjoy the game because it’s strategic and fast-paced.

And as for getting into Ivy League schools, it doesn’t hurt.

“It’s always been a sort of an elite sport,” says Rebecca Ashcraft, who watches her son play several times a week at Chelsea Piers Connecticut. “It gets very expensive as you start to play more and get better, and unfortunately, it hasn’t been very accessible to a lot of people, so it’s nice that it’s starting to become more popular.”

John Musto, the new squash director at Chelsea Piers, confirms the squash surge and US Squash, the governing body for the sport in America, reports an annual uptick in junior interest in New England, based on tournament entries. For the West Coast and southeast, the increase has been more dramatic. In the southeast alone, participation is up nearly 500 percent since 2012, according to US Squash.

“It’s really going crazy,” says Musto, a former top-ranked American junior and captain of the men’s squash team at Yale University. “A lot of the top coaches from around the world have come to the United States, so there’s a lot of great coaching right now for junior squash in America.”

Helping to promote the trend, Chelsea Piers — the East Side sports and entertainment behemoth that opened almost six years ago — has cultivated a robust junior squash program, with its own elite league and world-class coaches and pros.

But squash isn’t all fun and racquet games. A 2007 piece in the Styles section of The New York Times declared squash the new “back door” into the Ivy League, since those schools actively look to recruit players for their winning teams. It’s fitting, considering the sport was invented at a posh London boarding school in 1830.

“A lot of families are looking at the Ivy League, and that’s why they’re also doing fencing and stuff — but that’s not why we’re here,” the elder Ashcraft says. “We’re doing it because it’s going to be a lifetime family sport for us and if it helps with college, great.”

Darien especially has seen an increase in the number of students adding squash to their sports resumes. According to Ashcraft, Darien High’s teams have doubled in size. The school now has 40 players who compete in the FairWest Public School Squash League that includes New Canaan, Greenwich, Fairfield and Westport.

Ashcraft is on the Darien Squash Committee, which oversees the public school leagues, and there’s already buzz about an elementary school program set to begin in the spring. (Can a child be too young for squash? Apparently not. Ashcraft’s 6- and 7-year-olds already book time on the Chelsea Piers courts.)

Caroline Cooney began her squash career in the fourth grade. The 16-year-old competes now for Darien High School and Chelsea Piers, and plans to continue in college. But when Cooney started, higher education wasn’t a consideration: she relishes the game most for what it demands of her mind.

“When you’re in a glass container with another human being and you have to try to outsmart and outwit them ... it’s hard,” she says. “You have to try to figure out their weakness before they figure out yours.”

Competing as a teenager can sometimes work against that end.

“Being a teenager in general is really emotional,” Cooney says. “If I’m playing a match with someone, I can tell when I’m making them aggravated or they’re getting mad at themselves. You just have to stay composed at all times.”

Sister act

Darien’s claim to squash fame is the Stefanoni sisters, Marina and Lucie. The 15- and 13-year-olds each won their respective age groups last year in the US Squash Junior National Championship. Marina is the youngest player ever to hold the national under-19 singles title.

They train at Chelsea Piers, where Marcus Ashcraft is back for an early evening lesson after the season’s first major snowfall. Halfway through, Marcus and his coach, Rei Hergeth, a South African native and former star player for Trinity College, take a break.

Water bottle in one hand, Marcus extends the other to introduce himself and offers his thoughts on the sport he’s practiced committedly for the past three years.

“I like how it’s faster than baseball,” he says. “I like the fast sports because I don’t like to wait around, and with squash, you’re always moving and sweating.”

Seconds later, he’s back on the court, and observing is Paul Assaiante, the men’s squash and tennis coach at Trinity, one of the top-ranked squash schools. Assaiante is something of a squash legend.

“He hits the ball beautifully,” Assaiante tells Rebecca Ashcraft.

“Thank you,” she says. “He’s a little rusty because with the weather we haven’t been playing.”

“How old is he?” Assaiante asks.

”Twelve.”

“He hits a good ball.”

“He loves it. This is his sport.”

Opening doors

Assaiante, too, confirms the steady spike in young squash players. The phenomenon isn’t confined to Fairfield County, but Chelsea Piers is among the leaders of the movement locally, he says.

“It’s exploding in the United States,” he says. “Junior squash in the last decade is up 700 percent in the United States and in every other country in the world, it’s shrinking. We’re at the forefront and this facility is very much a part of that.”

Whether it’s purely so students can get into college, he can’t say. But it absolutely doesn’t hurt.

“Squash, lacrosse, rowing,” he says, “these are sports that people see as wonderful opportunities to learn a game, but also something that will open doors on the other end.”

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Learn More about Squash Programs at Chelsea Piers: CONNECTICUT