by Garrison Xian
Chestnut Hill is famous for its architecture, stone paved roads, boutique shops and flowers. The neighborhood, however, is also known for something that most Hillers are unaware of: Chestnut Hill is a squash powerhouse. No, not squash the vegetable, but the racket sport in a four-walled room in which players alternate hitting a small soft rubber ball.
Chestnut Hill has been producing some of the best players in the nation – from the former top 50 world-ranked (second highest ranking achieved by an American ever) Gilly Lane to up-and-coming National Team member Olivia Fietchter. Rooted in the success of local players is a popular squash culture in Chestnut Hill nurtured by the private country clubs and prep schools.
“I think Chestnut Hill is such a hotbed for squash because of the concentration of actual courts in Philadelphia as well as Chestnut Hill,” said Dean Russell, assistant head coach of the Springside Chestnut Hill Academy boys’ squash team as. “That coupled with the great junior programs run by the likes of Philly Cricket, Germantown Cricket and Merion. If you look at the amount of International coaches at these various clubs they’ve done a great job in helping the USA in transitioning to softball and putting in place the coaching structures that they’ve grown up in.”
The growing popularity of squash has brought in a number of noted foreign coaches to the United States, and many have settled in Chestnut Hill, including but not limited to the following:
• Mike Jeffries, the former Zimbabwe national team coach who lead Zimbabwe to a record finish at the World Junior Championships, is both coach of the SCH boys team and head pro at the Philadelphia Squash Club.
• Damon Leedale-Brown, Dutch national team coach as well as former British national team fitness and conditioning coach, is coach of the Penn Charter boys’ and girls’ programs.
• Adam Hamill, the American Junior National Team coach as well as former Scottish National Team player, is coach of the Germantown Friends School squash program and a pro at the Germantown Cricket Club.
• Beth Winstanley, the former Welsh Women’s National Team member, is the SCH girl’s team coach.
• Dean Russell, the former South African National Team member, is coach of the SCH boy’s team
• Parth Sharma, a former touring professional ranked in the top 200 in the world, led Trinity College to four straight national championships, captained the Trinity team in his senior year and is currently a pro at Philadelphia Cricket Club.
• Ron is a development coach specializing in cultivating a players’ kinetic IQ through the isolation of single body parts furthering fine motor mechanics and fostering an understanding of the physics of squash. He is also the assistant director at Philadelphia Squash Club.
The combination of world class coaching as well as state-of-the-art facilities has given the area some of the strongest junior training programs in the world.
The success of the junior squash programs in Chestnut Hill is reflected not only in the different outstanding individuals but in the school teams as well. The SCH boys recently won the Inter-Ac title, Mid Atlantic title, and finished in third place at the nationals. The SCH girls’ have enjoyed similar success finishing top 10 in the nation.
“The last 11 years we have been consistently in the top five in the country,” said Mike Jeffries, head coach of the SCH boys team..”The next year will be a much tighter year, as we lose four seniors from the top of our lineup, all of whom were sought after by the top Ivy League teams. Squash is helping these kids get into these top schools.”
Indeed, all four of the graduates from the SCH team were recruited to the college squash scene along with a few from Penn Charter and Germantown Friends. Some of the notable graduates include:
• Mason Blake, an SCH graduate who is the top recruit to the University of Virginia, which is ranked in the top 25 in the nation. He won the national doubles title last year with another graduate from Penn Charter, Randy Beck.
• Sean Kenny, an SCH graduate who is an All American squash player with offers from many schools, including Trinity college (13 time national champion as well as holder of longest win streak in college athletic history of 252 matches). He took a gap year and is reconsidering his offers. He finished in the top 24 in the prestigious U.S. Junior Open (fourth highest finish as an American) and was ranked as high as eighth in the nation among junior boys.
• Philip Kelly, an SCH graduate who was ranked in the top 30 in the nation, was recruited by Division One squash powerhouse Franklin and Marshall and was captain of the SCH boys team fin his senior year.
• Brian Giegerich, an SCH graduate who was ranked in the top 25 in the nation, was recruited by Dartmouth College. He had a record run at the U.S. Junior Open, including an epic win over the number one U.S. Junior National Team member Pierson Broadwater.
• Olivia Fiechter: a GFS graduate who was ranked in the top three in the nation and finished third at the prestigious U.S. Junior Open. She is a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team and is heading to Division One powerhouse Princeton University next year.
• Margaux Losty, a PC graduate who was ranked in the top 20 in the nation, is heading to division one powerhouse Cornell University next year.
The success of these programs has reached far and wide, even bringing in a visitor from China. The former Chinese National Squash Team coach Bin Liu spent an afternoon during his tour of the United States to learn from the squash powerhouse programs here in Chestnut Hill.
Although many of these rising squash stars will be moving on, it’s likely that the next batch of talent is not far behind them.
While squash used to be a country club sport, clubs like the Philadelphia Squash Club at SCH have opened the sport to the public. Now nearly anyone can have access to top facilities and coaches.
Lane said that kind of access was a huge boost to his squash career.
“I was able to accomplish my success by being exposed to the sport early, being around people who know about the sport,” he said. “I started playing because my parents played. The school programs involved helped other young people to start early as well. It is a bigger sport in Chestnut Hill because there are generations of people who played.”