Six first-time winners at US Junior Closed
There once was a time when junior squash was very predictable. It seemed that a pecking order of sorts was generally established very early on that was rarely disturbed. Once the “elite” were ordained in the under-13's, those select few maintained their status all the way through the under-19's.
For example, the fab-five girls of Ali Pearson, Amy Gross, Kate Rapisarda, Louisa Hall and Michelle Quibell ruled every division they played. Will Broadbent and Julian Illingworth dominated. So did Eric Pearson and Peter Kelly. It's just the way things were. But times have changed. Sure, a couple of players, like Emily Park and perhaps now Olivia Blatchford, have become expected winners by many.
This year, six of the eight champions in the US Junior Closed Nationals were first time winners of the event—in any division. Only two, Trevor McGuinness and Olivia Blatchford, have tasted the sweetness of victory in years past by winning the Boys U15 in 2003 and the Boys U17 in 2004, and the Girls U13 last year, respectively.
The beauty of this is that junior squash in the US has become somewhat unpredictable and, as a result, more competitive. Even better, the young players seeking to climb to the top of the podium seem to worry less about who they're playing and more about what they're doing themselves. There was no better example of that than Natasha Kingshott in the Girls U17.
Though seeded No. 2, Kingshott hadn't exactly met with much success against Emily Park, the No. 1 seed. In 2003, Kingshott was triple bageled by Park in the finals of the U13. In 2005, the result was four points closer as Park handled Kingshott in the U15 final 0, 0, 4. Park, who has already amassed four national championships, including two in the U13 and two in the U15, hadn't lost a game in the US Junior Closed since losing in the semis of the U13 in 2001.
But Kingshott was determined to make things different this year when she again faced Park in the final, this time in the U17. “I just went out this year hoping to play better than last year,” says Kingshott of her approach to the final. “My main goal was just to make it a match. Last year I just played scared. This year I knew what to expect in the finals of Nationals, and I just wanted to improve on what I had done wrong last year.”
Down two games to one, and 7-2 in the fourth, Kingshott's mental strength shined. “I just always stay positive and forget about the score,” Kingshott says of how she handles pressure. “I just try to eliminate the pressure and think about playing every point one at a time. So I don't get nervous.” Kingshott simply clawed her way back into the match and nearly closed the gap by getting to 6-7.
Park then reached eight and served for the match at 8-6, but couldn't close it out. At 8-7, Kingshott saved her second match ball before running the table to 10-8 to even up the match. And Park was clearly rattled as screams of frustration began to resonate with every error she made on Yale's glass show court.
The fifth game was close throughout, but Kingshott maintained her composure and walked away with a 9-7 win. “I was just shocked at first. There was like this rush of adrenaline,” Kingshott says with a toothy grin. “It was such a close match and we were both exhausted, to walk off that court knowing I had played so well, that I had tried my hardest and prevailed—it was just an unbelievable feeling.”
On the boy's side, Trevor McGuinness was looking to live up to his No. 1 seeding in the under-19. Though he had two National Championships under his belt, it wasn't like he had been tearing up the juniors from his days in the U13. He didn't reach his first final until he won the U15 when the Junior Closed was played in Baltimore three years ago.
Unlike so many of the top junior players, McGuinness's early experience in junior squash includes a triple-zero thrashing as a 9-year-old in the US Junior Open Under-12's. He, of course, proudly stated that he avenged that loss two years later. And along with his squash game, McGuinness has come full circle with his mental game as well. Six years ago, while being hammered by a Pakistani in the US Junior Open U13, McGuinness was struggling mightily to keep his composure while playing on one of Yale's glass exhibition courts. Men's coach Dave Talbott saw to it that McGuinness would learn to hang onto his racquet. In the middle of one of the three games (not afterwards), “Talbott came on court and told me not to throw my racquet again,” recalls McGuinness. A somewhat stunned McGuinness held onto that stick for the rest of the match. “It had a really big impact on me when I realized who it was,” says McGuinness who found out after the match who Talbott was. “It was a little bit of a wake-up call. It was like, 'Wow, I'm a little bit too old for this. I've gotta chill out a little bit.'”
Six years later, McGuinness has been dominating US junior squash with his powerful, attacking style of play—and winning sportsmanship awards like the one from the Philadelphia Squash Racquets Association. “Winning the annual PSRA Sportsmanship Award, chosen by coaches in the Philadelphia area, is my most valuable award,” says McGuinness proudly.
On the court, McGuinness crushes the ball. Not just some of the time, but all of the time, which is something he picked up playing hardball doubles. “There's almost no limit to how hard you can hit [in doubles],” McGuinness explains. “Sometimes if you serve the ball hard enough and hit the right spot, you can make it bounce off and almost hit the red line again. That's pretty fascinating.” For the most part, McGuinness gets away with using the same power on the softball court, simply because the ball is moving so fast it's difficult to pick up. It served him well in the Junior Closed as he methodically defeated Mark Froot in the U19 final, 3-0.
Off the court, both Kingshott and McGuinness have met with similar success in school and other activities. Kingshott, who also plays field hockey (fall) and lacrosse (spring) is a member of the student government at Greenwich Academy. She also enjoys speaking French and Latin—and is looking forward to putting her French to good use in France this summer.
McGuinness, who will graduate at just 17-years-old from the Episcopal Academy this spring, finished the computer curriculum by ninth grade and has been working with his physics teacher on a self-designed electronics unit this year. He's also the Editor of the school yearbook, plays No. 1 on the tennis team, and was accepted early to Harvard—the only school that received an application from him. Harvard may have to wait a year, however, as McGuinness is considering deferring his enrollment. “I'm considering it. I'd really like to work on my squash game to take it to another level. Maybe travel a bit and do some academic work at local colleges; really pursue some of those interests I have in the technology world and see where I can take them.”
SquashSmarts, the Philadelphia-based Urban Squash Program has also benefited from McGuinness's talents. “I've really enjoyed volunteering with SquashSmarts,” says McGuinness. “I've just had so much fun getting to know the kids, helping with their academics, and providing the organization with technical support issues. And my senior project in school is to plan an SAT prep course for SquashSmarts kids.”
In the end, the 2006 US Junior Closed Nationals will be remembered for featuring first-time winners in six of the eight divisions, with only Olivia Blatchford joining McGuinness as multi-time winners. Perhaps Kingshott will keep things interesting in what could become an exciting rivalry with Emily Park, and the Boys U19 will be looking for a new champion next year.