June 30, 2017
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- For a growing sport at the University of Virginia, this will be remembered as a historic day. That's because UVA announced this afternoon that its men's and women's squash teams have been elevated from club to varsity status.
Virginia becomes the first Power 5 school to sponsor men's squash as a varsity sport. UVA and Stanford are the only Power 5 schools to offer varsity women's squash. The University now sponsors 27 varsity sports: 14 for women and 13 for men.
Mark Allen is head coach of both squash teams.
"I'm so excited," Julia Thompson, one of the standouts on the UVA women's squash team, said Tuesday. "It's going to be so much fun."
A rising sophomore from the Philadelphia area, Thompson is not shocked that squash gained varsity status at UVA. When she enrolled at the University last summer, she thought this day might come, but "I didn't think it would happen this quickly," Thompson said. "I didn't think I would be here to see it."
The men's and women's teams are close, Thompson said. "Monday nights we practice together, and other than that, the girls are usually warming down when the boys are warming up, because it's just too many people for Mark to keep track of [at one practice]. But we travel to matches together, we eat breakfast together, and we support each other's matches."
UVA's club teams have competed in what is now called the Collegiate Squash Association since the 2002-03 season. The CSA, not the NCAA, governs intercollegiate squash. Playing a schedule that included club and varsity teams, Virginia finished 2016-17 ranked 13th nationally on the women's side and 18th on the men's side.
In a squash match, two teams play nine singles matches. Each match is worth one point toward the team score. The team that wins five singles matches is the victor.
In the United States, squash has traditionally been most popular in the Northeast, but it's growing in other parts of the country, Allen said.
In the final men's rankings for 2016-17, Trinity College was No. 1, Harvard was No. 2, St. Lawrence was No. 3, Columbia was No. 4, and Rochester was No. 5.
On the women's side, Harvard was No. 1, Penn was No. 2, Trinity was No. 3, Princeton was No. 4, and Stanford was No. 5.
As a club program, UVA had few peers, and that bodes well for Allen and assistant coach Grant White.
"It's not like we're starting a program from scratch," Allen said.
With the scholarships that will come with varsity status at UVA, Allen expects the teams to take significant steps forward.
"I think the women's team within two years will be pushing a top-10 position in the country," Allen said, "and the men's team, there or thereabouts.
"As for how long will it take to win a national championship, I think the biggest factor there is how we can continue to provide scholarships to bring high-level players in."
The CSA season starts in November. The team championships are held in late February and the individual championships in early March.
A native of England who played the game professionally, Allen, 46, has coached Virginia's club teams since the McArthur Squash Center was completed in 2013.
"In the four years we've made tremendous progress," Allen said, "and we've had this kind of steady rise from when the facility opened to where we are now. But without the varsity status that we're now going to get, we were about to hit a glass ceiling. We were close to really getting to be as good as we were going to get as a club team."
Moreover, Allen said, club teams and varsity teams may soon compete in separate national championships.
A gift from an anonymous donor will provide funding for scholarships, annual operational support, and facility enhancements at UVA. University Advancement will lead the fundraising for the men's and women's programs.
The McArthur Squash Center, Allen said, is unsurpassed in the college game. It currently has eight singles courts, and UVA's Board of Visitors recently approved a $9 million expansion project that would add, among other features, five new singles courts, locker rooms, and coaches' offices.
With 14 singles courts, UVA will be able to host national tournaments.
Allen said at least half of his current players -- the men and the women each have 15 -- chose Virginia over schools that had varsity squash programs and offered scholarship money for the sport.
"I'm so happy that they had the courage to [choose UVA] and now see it go varsity," Allen said. "That's a wonderful thing for them in particular."
Thompson followed two siblings to UVA. Her brother, Peter Thompson, graduated in May.
"He was a really big reason I came to UVA, because I kept visiting him when I was in high school, my junior and senior year, and every time I would come I would stop by and say hi to Mark, because I love squash," Thompson said. "And I had some friends on the team, so I would come and play with them, just for the fun of it. And the facility was the best I'd ever seen. It's beautiful. I love Virginia."
Harrison Kapp, another rising sophomore from the Philadelphia area, is one of the top players on the men's team. UVA was not the only school he considered when he was looking at colleges, Kapp said, "but Mark offered me a spot here, and I really fell in love with Virginia, and the opportunity to play squash was [appealing]."
Allen said his approach to preparing his teams will not change significantly in 2016-17.
"What we sold to the players all along was that we might not be a varsity program, but because we compete against varsity programs on a [regular] basis, that's how we're going to run it," Allen said.
"They're already training like varsity student-athletes. Now it's official. It's nice that now they get recognition for this. In terms of the work and the effort and the sacrifices, they were already doing it."
Thompson said the teams typically practice five times a week. Now, she said, those practices "will just be a little longer. Instead of an hour and a half, there'll be two-hour practices."
Balancing athletics and academics may be a little more challenging for the squash players, Thompson said, "but it's going to be really fun. We're excited for our [UVA-issued] backpacks, because it makes us a little more legitimate. Mark trains us like we're varsity already, so intensity-wise it won't change, but it's really exciting to be legitimized."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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