For Stanford squash, just getting back on court was a victory.
The Cardinal hadn’t competed in over a year after the 2020-2021 college squash season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was set to be squash’s final season as a varsity program after Stanford Athletics abruptly announced the cancellation of eleven varsity sports in June 2020.
A year of uncertainty followed, during which the team’s home courts were used as a COVID testing site for other athletes. One year and two seasons later, after Stanford’s surprise reinstatement of all eleven cancelled sports in May, squash finally returned to competition on Nov. 19.
Over a grueling, four-day road swing, the 10th-ranked Cardinal (0-5) fell to No. 8 Cornell, No. 9 Penn, No. 13 Amherst College, No. 7 Drexel and No. 3 Princeton in Philadelphia.
“Playing after two years, no-one knew what to expect going in,” senior captain Amita Gondi said. “But every game was a step closer to coming back to competitive squash.”
Stanford could only field a team of eight players in Philly — college squash matches are usually contested in matchups of nine, with missing players counting as forfeits — due to preseason injuries. The team ultimately played with just seven athletes in two matches after sustaining further injuries during the trip. Gondi travelled with the team, but she and sophomore Chloe Pai were unavailable for the weekend.
Still, the Cardinal showed the strength of their top players in tight outings against No. 9 Penn and No. 13 Amherst College on Saturday, losing by scores of 3-6 and 4-5, respectively. In the team’s closest loss, a 4-5 nailbiter against Amherst in front of a raucous crowd, Stanford’s top four swept the Mammoths but the Cardinal lost at the No. 5 spot to seal the loss when senior Sumi Mudgil dropped a five-game heartbreaker.
Stanford suffered tougher losses to No. 8 Cornell, No. 7 Drexel and No. 3 Princeton, losing 2-7, 1-8 and 0-9, respectively. The Cardinal played with seven players on Friday against Cornell and on Monday against Princeton, losing sophomore Samantha Moadel to illness and senior Elena Wagenmans to injury. Against Drexel, Gondi highlighted sophomore Cassie Ong, who turned in a standout performance to push the Dragons’ top player Karina Tyma, a first team All-American, to two tiebreakers in a 58-minute marathon before retiring with a rolled ankle.
Ong played at the No. 1 position on Stanford’s roster for the first time in her career, headlining a strong top flight of Cardinal players rounded out by senior and former All-American Wagenmans at No. 2 and sophomores Si Yi Ma and Lucia Bicknell, who made their collegiate debuts at positions No. 3 and 4. Ma was impressive throughout the weekend, finishing 4-1 in her individual matches with Stanford’s only win against Drexel and a tight five-game loss while filling in for an injured Wagenmans at position No. 2 against Princeton.
Freshman walk-on Cathy Zhou also made her collegiate debut for Stanford at the No. 8 position, while Mudgil and sophomores Haley Aube and Moadel completed the Cardinal’s lineup at positions No. 5, 6 and 7. The depth of the Cardinal roster has already been severely challenged this year, both by a missed recruiting class during the program’s temporary cancellation and injuries. While sophomore walk-on Chloe Pae should return soon from a preseason injury, senior captain Gondi is out for the season with a torn ACL.
“Being captain of the team and then getting injured right before the season was a tough pill to swallow,” Gondi said. “But I think the community we foster as a team goes well beyond just playing squash.”
Stanford will return to the Farm to prepare for the bulk of its schedule in the winter quarter. The Cardinal have no home games on their schedule this year and head back east to play the rest of the women’s squash teams ranked in the top 10, including longtime rival No. 4 Yale, No. 2 Trinity and No. 1 Harvard.
Postseason seedings are already on the line. Only the top eight teams in the country will qualify for the top division of the National Championships in late February and a chance to play for the national title. Wagenmans and Gondi are the only players left from the Stanford team that made history at nationals three years ago by earning a program-best No. 3 end-of-season ranking with an upset of Princeton and finally breaching the podium of an Ivy League-dominated sport with few top programs outside of the east coast.
After enduring a hiatus and challenges far beyond their control, the Cardinal face a long, tough climb to regain the momentum they had not so long ago.
“Looking forward to it,” Gondi said of the rest of the schedule. “We’ll get Chloe back and use the time between now and Jan. 7 to learn from this past weekend and grind out the rest of the season.”
Stanford next hits the road to play No. 6 Columbia in New York on Jan. 7.