Next year, No. 18 Stanford squash (0-11) will have a new mascot, head coach Mark Talbott said: a phoenix.
“We’re going to rise again,” Talbott said last Wednesday at the team’s final practice of the season before heading to the National Championships.
Talbott’s confidence comes as squash concludes the most challenging season in the program’s history. Stanford closed its season over the weekend at the CSA National Championships with three tight losses to No. 23 Hamilton, No. 19 Middlebury and No. 24 Wesleyan to finish at the bottom of the Walker Cup.
As it did all season, Stanford played shorthanded in its matches at the National Championships, fielding six players against Hamilton and Middlebury and seven against Wesleyan.
Seniors Elena Wagenmans and Sumi Mudgil were unavailable for most of the weekend due to illness, with Wagenmans returning only for the match on Sunday. Their absences left Stanford with only three scholarship players, sophomores Si Yi Ma, Cassie Ong and Lucia Bicknell, who swept their opponents over the weekend in comfortable wins. But the Cardinal’s depth, sophomore Chloe Pae and freshmen Cathy Zhao and Riya Saran, were edged out in tight games against more experienced competition.
Those losses, combined with losses by default at the empty two or three spots at the bottom of Stanford’s lineup, were too much to overcome. Stanford lost 3-6 to Hamilton on Friday, 3-6 to Middlebury on Saturday and 4-5 to Wesleyan on Sunday.
The Cardinal, who did not win a match all season, are set to drop to No. 24 in the season’s final rankings, their lowest since 2004.
Talbott and his players will enter the offseason determined to mount a resurgence next year. Their confidence, even after a winless season, reflects the unusually challenging circumstances Stanford played under this season.
Already burdened with the task of replacing six players from two graduated classes, Stanford lost the chance to assemble a recruiting class for the Class of 2025 when the squash program was temporarily canceled along with 10 other varsity sports in July 2020. After the program’s reinstatement, Stanford’s razor-thin roster was further stretched when senior Amita Gondi suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason. COVID-19 protocols and other injuries and illnesses continued to hamper the Cardinal throughout the season.
“The season was a rollercoaster,” Wagenmans said on Monday. “All things considered, the team did a really good job and stuck together… I’m very proud of the team.”
Wagenmans highlighted the performances of Zhao, Pae and Saran over the season, who joined the Stanford team this year as walk-ons and were immediately thrown into action against some of the top teams in the country.
“They really stepped up,” Wagenmans said. “It’s super brutal to start playing, practicing [recently] and then go out and play girls that have played for many more years.”
The Cardinal will finally have a chance to reload next year. Aside from Mudgil, Stanford expects to return the entirety of its lineup in 2022. Wagenmans and Gondi, along with the rest of the team, have an extra year of eligibility after the College Squash Association canceled its 2020-2021 season because of the pandemic. They’ll be joined by four recruits, one of the largest recruiting classes Stanford has taken in recent years.
The team will also look to build on encouraging individual performances from this season. Ma played in all eleven of Stanford’s matches and dropped only one match to No. 3 Princeton. Her win against Harvard — this year’s national champion team — was Stanford’s only individual match win against the Crimson.
Ma, Wagenmans and Ong have all played at the top spot in Stanford’s lineup at different points in the season. Talbott tabbed the trio as the strongest group of players the Cardinal has ever fielded.
“We’ve never had a top three like this,” Talbott said last week. “Those three are three of the best players in all of college.”
It was only three years ago that the Cardinal made history with a top-three finish at the National Championships. Returning to the top of college squash will be a huge challenge for a rebuilding Stanford squad. But so was being able to compete this year. With a resilient team — and one that he hopes will be bigger and healthier next year — Talbott is optimistic.
“We couldn’t be more excited about the future,” he said.