Oregon squash came home from the College Squash Association (CSA) National Championship with the prize it coveted most: respect.
The Ducks won just a single game out of three in Connecticut, a 3-2 victory against Ithaca, but the experience marked another step in their progression.
“This year was really a Cinderella year for us,” team vice president Chris Cramer said. “We went from not being competitive at all and playing in just a few matches last year to competing in nationals this year.”
Team president Gordon Reed rebooted the squash program last season after a three-year absence from club sports. Listed as an “emerging club” the past two seasons, the CSA will place Oregon in a higher division next year. Which division they enter will depend on the CSA’s analysis off their overall performance compared to other teams.
The program’s road to respectability has not been smooth. Since Oregon is a public school on the west coast, where squash is not as popular as it is in the northeastern part of the country, recruiting new players has been a challenge.
“(Wealthy schools) get a lot of private school kids who usually have a better chance of being exposed to squash prior to college,” Reed said.
As a result, the team has been unable to court new players through traditional methods.
“We’ve had limited success tabling through club sports and at other freshman orientation events,” Cramer said. “It’s hard to stand out as a club and not many people come from high school playing squash. If they played a certain sport in high school, they’re looking to continue that.”
To combat the issue, many on the team have used word-of-mouth to attract recruits.
“I’ve talked to people in my classes about it,” team secretary Mikey Casner said. “Members of our team who are in fraternities try to recruit young people that way.”
Before heading to nationals, the Ducks recognized that the trip would be a valuable way to learn from other programs who face similar obstacles.
“We’ll have the opportunity to talk with a lot of big-name schools who maybe have not had the same number of private school enrollees,” Reed said in early February. “Being able to get in contact and discuss things like that with more common programs is going to be really helpful.”
Upon arrival in Connecticut, many were interested in speaking with Oregon.
“We ended up being a big hit,” Reed said. “We met a lot of people, many who were connected to Oregon in some way and rooted for us in our matches.”
The Ducks made strong connections with schools such as Trinity, who won the national championship in the most competitive bracket.
“It was an incredibly importance acceptance,” Reed said. “It was a constant kind of exposure. We were ecstatic.”
The team says that it will begin recruiting for next year in the coming weeks, instead of fall, in order to gain an advantage on more popular sports.
Four of the five players that traveled to nationals, including Reed, Cramer and Casner, will be seniors next season, making this recruiting stage critical.
“The trajectory of the program,” Reed said, “is dependent on what the seniors do in transition and how we pass it on to the younger players.”
Follow Jack Heffernan on Twitter @JHeffy13