By Jon Brand
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Colleges trying to attract top-caliber students to a campus where tuition, room and board costs more than $50,000 a year will do anything they can to make themselves stand out, to bolster their reputations as elite institutions of learning. When former president Steven Joel Trachtenberg was trying to emboss George Washington University's image, one of his approaches was original: squash.
So when the school started construction in 1999 on the 183,000-square foot Health and Wellness Center, a multimillion-dollar, four-level fitness complex, Trachtenberg advocated for six international regulation squash courts to be built. He subsequently worked with the athletic department to sanction the 25-year-old men's club team as varsity and add a women's program. Both squads started play in fall 2002, and the school recently strengthened its investment. This fall, GW became the first school in the country to offer scholarships to squash players, cementing its commitment to a sport that has been played at the collegiate level since 1931 but has just recently become more popular on college campuses.
Trachtenberg, an avid racquetball player, "was intuitive and wanted to recruit students that are looking to attend the Ivies," GW senior associate athletic director Mary Jo Warner said. "Obviously not every student can get into those schools."
GW, one of four non-Ivy Division I squash programs, recognized the academic value of squash student-athletes to the school, too. In the seven years of existence, the men's team has won the athletic department's team GPA award twice.
"These are also students that happen to be outstanding academically and it's the kind of students we want to attract to GW," said Bob Chernak, the school's senior vice president of student and academic support services. "It's not rocket science why we're giving support."
In the last decade, men's participation in the College Squash Association, the sport's governing body, has almost doubled, from 36 teams in 2000 to 66 this year. And the number of teams in women's squash -- considered an "emerging sport" by the NCAA, or one that is intended to help schools provide more athletic opportunities for women -- has increased from 28 to 39. But while the game has proliferated widely, from Palo Alto to Chapel Hill, expansion has been mostly through club programs that receive little support from athletic departments.
The best college squash teams -- also the oldest and most heavily funded -- are in the Ivy League and at their Division III academic counterparts such as Williams and Amherst, whose programs receive top prep school and international junior players each season. Half of the top 10 men's and seven of the top 10 women's programs are Ivies, and Trinity College's men have won the last 11 team championships.
Two years ago, GW men's coach Wendy Lawrence and women's coach Maura Myers approached the athletic department about getting funding for scholarships and initially were rebuffed.
"I think the university assumed that squash players already had money," Lawrence said, referring to the game's reputation in the United States as an elitist sport played mostly at exclusive prep schools and Ivy League universities.
That was and continues to be somewhat true -- recently, the family of one of Lawrence's players donated $100,000 to the team -- but the men's and women's squads at George Washington also have athletes on need-based financial aid. Tuition, room and board at GW is $51,775, one of the more expensive amounts in the country.
Six months after the rejection, however, the coaches received an e-mail. Both teams would be given partial scholarships to award new student-athletes starting this fall.
"We wanted to treat all of our programs the same," GW associate athletic director Chandra Bierwirth said. "This seemed to be the natural piece of the puzzle."
This backing also has helped to fulfill the school's vision of competing with the best schools on the squash courts.
This season, freshman Omar Sohby, the seventh-ranked under-19 player in the United States and the top player on campus, chose the Colonials men's team over Dartmouth and the University of Rochester, two top 10 programs. Sohby chose GW in part because of scholarship considerations, which amounted to between $10,000 and $20,000, according to Lawrence. Dartmouth, an Ivy League institution, and Rochester, a Division III school, do not offer athletic aid.
The scholarship "was part of the package, for sure, because some schools can't offer that," Sohby said. "But I was also excited for the potential for our team, especially since seeing how much it has grown since Wendy became coach."
Lawrence and Myers have been integral in helping the program flourish.
Lawrence, the former coach at Virginia's Potomac School and a founder of D.C. Squash Academy, an urban youth squash program, took over the men's program in fall 2007 after it finished 30th in the country. After two seasons of solid recruiting, the team started this year ranked 22nd.
Myers, coached by Lawrence at Potomac School in the late 1990s, has done a similarly stellar job. In five seasons, the women's team has gone from 29th to a ranking of 15th last year. They are currently the second-highest nationally ranked team at George Washington, behind men's rowing.
"It helps that we've gone up in the rankings," Lawrence said. "Not only are you attracting people because you have money, but you're now a prestigious program."
The success -- and the scholarship -- has increased the school's profile in the squash community, which is growing at the junior level as prospective students look for another résumé booster in an increasingly competitive college admissions environment.
Earlier this fall, Myers received an e-mail from an 8-year-old's mother asking about getting her daughter on the team in the future. Another day, a prep school student who had already been approached by another successful program told Lawrence that if she could offer him some money, he would consider GW.
But though all of this points to future achievement for the Colonials in squash, it doesn't signal a financial shift in focus at the school away from the more popular sports.
"We're going to still be fundraising for that sport," Warner said. "We're not going to prioritize squash anytime soon, but we're proud of what the coaches have done."
From a national perspective, it's unclear yet if GW's spending, however minimal, will spark other non-Ivy Division I programs to offer athletic dollars or persuade athletic directors to grant varsity status to club teams.
Tough economic times, Title IX and the presence of multiple big-revenue sports, which GW doesn't have, are some of the major stumbling blocks for the expansion of college squash.
Take the Stanford women's varsity team, which this year had hoped to secure athletic scholarship funding. The downturn in the economy put that on hold, according to Coach Mark Talbott.
Still, emerging college squash programs that are interested in and have the capabilities to expand can look to GW as a model for growth.
"A little bit of funding goes a long way," Lawrence said.