Commentary

Trinity squash takes unprecedented streak further with 11th straight title

Updated: February 23, 2009, 11:23 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

We are fascinated by streaks in sports.

Amid the fury of back-to-back Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004, the New England Patriots put together an NFL-record 21 consecutive victories. The NBA standard belongs to the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who won 33 straight. In the mid-1950s, the University of Oklahoma prevailed in 47 straight football games. The University of North Carolina women's soccer team won 92 consecutive games from 1993 to 1995. Hurdler Edwin Moses went a decade (1977 to 1987) without losing, winning 122 races in a row.

These all are inspired, incandescent runs of consistent excellence that defy rational explanation. But there is a searing streak you probably are unaware of that dwarfs them all.

We give you: The Streak.

[+] EnlargeTrinity Squash
Dick Druckman Trinity defeated Princeton 5-4 on Sunday for its 11th consecutive national title.

It belongs to Trinity College -- a lovely, gothic slice of 100 acres in Hartford, Conn. The Bantams' squash team -- don't snicker; this is serious, global stuff -- now has won 202 consecutive matches, an almost unimaginable number. This constitutes the longest winning streak in the history of college varsity sports.

In recent days, some of the most respected news-gathering organizations -- including The New York Times and CNN -- have paid homage to the Trinity squash program.

On Sunday, Trinity won its 11th consecutive College Squash Association Potter Trophy, the national title, over archrival Princeton. The Bantams' heart-stopping 5-4 victory was precisely the same score they had produced eight days earlier against the Tigers.

No. 1 player Baset Chaudhry, a 6-foot-5 junior from Lahore, Pakistan, was tied at two games all and in the fifth and final game when he fell behind Mauricio Sanchez 0-5. But Chaudhry won the last nine points of the match to give Trinity the championship.

When Chaudhry learned his had been the deciding match -- the way the match unfolded, he had no idea -- he sat on the court and cried.

No. 3 player Manek Mathur of Mumbai, India, a senior captain, came back from an 0-9 third-game loss to win his fourth and fifth games, 9-1 and 9-2, respectively. Six of the nine matches went to the ultimate fifth game.

A few hours later, traveling back to Hartford from Princeton, N.J., in "a rickety old van," Trinity coach Paul Assaiante, architect of The Streak, still couldn't believe it.

"Oh, my god," he exclaimed. "Our guys just hang around and make pests of themselves. That's what they did today.

"Eleven titles? I can't wrap my head around that. I wrap my head around this group of seniors, hug them and tell them I love them. When I'm drowning worms [fishing] someday in North Carolina, I'll think about it. For now, the senior class that graduates in May will be my seventh straight class that never saw a loss."

The last time Trinity lost in squash was 11 years ago to the day, Feb. 22, 1998, to Harvard University in the Potter Trophy final.

How has Trinity done it with an $8,000 annual budget?

By thinking outside the box -- way outside.

College squash is an obscure, elite game peculiar to the United States' Northeast. The Bantams essentially began bringing in gifted athletes from the places around the world where squash matters -- and Assaiante never made a recruiting trip overseas.

[+] EnlargeBaset Chauhdry
Dick Druckman Baset Chaudhry rallied in his final game Sunday to give Trinity the championship.

It began with a conversation between Assaiante and then-Trinity president Evan Dobelle in 1996. Assaiante's first two seasons had been frustrating; the Bantams could compete with their Ivy League opponents, but rarely did they beat them.

"The president called me into his office and said, 'What do we need to do to be more competitive on that playing field?'" Assaiante recalled. "And I said, 'Well, the best squash in the world is not being played in the United States.' And he said, 'Great, go out and find the best and the brightest.'"

It took a few years, but the offer of a sound education in the United States and a competitive squash program attracted players from beyond the borders of the United States. Oscar Buitrago, from Canada, was the first, in 1996. In 1997, Laurens Coetzee and Marcus Cowie arrived from South Africa and England, respectively.

Soon the locker room featured a crazy quilt of cultures and religions, from Hindus and Christians to Jews and Muslims. This year, the top nine players all are international students, including Chaudhry, Mathur, senior captain Gustav Detter of Malmoe, Sweden, and sophomore Andres Vargas of Bogota, Columbia.

Trinity, a Division III school, is not as competitive academically as the Ivy League schools, which gives the institution more latitude in admitting students. And while Trinity does not offer athletic scholarships, the school finds ways to support a number of its squash athletes with financial aid.

"I am jealous," said Princeton coach Bob Callahan, who is good friends with Assaiante. "I wish I could have a couple of their guys on my team. Trinity really is the one that opened the door and has really changed people's minds about what can be done in squash."

Said Cornell coach Mark DeVoy: "They have a great resource in being able to tap into an overseas market. We all have different rules on how we can recruit. It's just a school policy, and mainly it's a financial aid issue.

"Would I like [to have] the recruiting rules that coach Assainante works under? Yeah. But I don't. For our sport to evolve, we need to see these great players, and they have them -- they just happen to be all on one team." Trinity's diversity has become a source of strength and solidarity.

"I came here and saw the diversification and was pretty shocked," Chaudhry said. "We have really different playing styles, [and] it really helps. Whether it's No. 1 or No. 15, everyone gives his 100 percent, and that's what pushes everyone on the ladder."

"We have people from every single background possible," Mathur said. "It actually helps us get along with each other because we have the common thing about being away from home. It helps us bond."

Not everyone appreciates the team's diversity.

"They learn the world isn't perfect," Assaiante said. "They learn that when people want to play games and want to get in your head they are going to say things that they think hurt you the most. We were recently at a match and someone yelled at one of the boys from India, 'Go back to your country and bomb Pakistan.' Creative heckling is a great thing, but there was nothing creative about that -- that's just garbage."

Said Mathur: "Without sounding arrogant, that's all they have to get after us. We don't really mind it. We just laugh and keep playing."

For the uninitiated, squash is a sport similar to racquetball, played on a rectangular, four-walled indoor court. Games are played to nine points with only the server capable of scoring a point. Three games wins the match.

[+] EnlargeTrinity Squash
Dick Druckman Coach Paul Assaiante has a word with Gustav Detter during the senior's match Sunday.

Usually, Trinity crushes the opposition. In the national quarterfinals and semifinals this past Friday and Saturday, the cumulative score against No. 8-ranked Dartmouth and No. 5-ranked Harvard was 18-0; moreover, the Bantams won 54 of 56 games in the matches.

Still, there have been some spectacular near-losses, all against archrival Princeton.

On Feb. 1, 2006, the teams were tied at 4-all at Trinity. The last match came down to then-freshman Detter against Princeton's Yasser El Halaby, the reigning three-time national singles champion and perhaps the most decorated college squash player ever.

Asaaiante congratulated Callahan, his Princeton counterpart, on a spirited contest and essentially conceded the match. When the Egyptian-born El Halaby won the first two games and held a match point at 8-6 in the third, Assaiante seemed prescient. But then Detter rallied and won the third game. Then the fourth. And, incredibly, the fifth.

"The craziest thing I have ever been a part of," Assaiante said.

Just more than a week ago, on Valentine's Day, Trinity again prevailed 5-4 over Princeton in the final regular-season match, which, appropriately, was Sunday's score as well.

A total of 76 players from 15 countries have won matches during The Streak.

"When we lose -- and we will -- it won't be because the bar dropped," Assaiante said recently. "It will be because [the other teams] came up to the bar.

"That will be a great legacy."

That day won't come at least until The Streak is into its 12th year.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.