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Squashing the competition

Kaitlynn Reily | Friday, January 30, 2009

Kristine So is used to competing with the guys.

At a squash tournament last weekend, So was the No. 10 seed on the Notre Dame men’s squash club team and in her first match, played a man who was five seeds ahead of her and twice her size.

She said she held her own, but was pretty handily defeated in that match. Only one other woman competed in the whole tournament.

But three weekends from now, for the first time, So will travel with four female teammates to represent the Notre Dame squash club at a women’s tournament.

So is not sure how she will do now that her competition is female.

“Girls definitely have that mental edge, but when you play a guy who is three times your size, they also have that edge,” So said.

The women’s portion of the squash club will leave Notre Dame on Feb. 12 to fly to Harvard University for the three-day College Squash Association National Championships. They will play in the emerging teams division, against other club-level teams. That makes knowing the strength of their opponent more difficult, So said, because they could be playing club level players or women who were nationally-ranked in high school but went to a college without a squash team.

So, who went to high school in Canada, started playing squash in seventh grade. She noticed the squash courts at Rockne Memorial Gym as a freshman, but the club was all men, and she was too intimidated to go to a practice.

So, a junior now, decided last year to just go for it. She grabbed one of her roommates and took her along to join the club.

Once acclimated, she and her teammates tried to recruit other girls. The team asked women who were part of the RecSports squash class to join the club and talked to girls who had competed in racquetball tournaments, persuading them to cross over to squash.

But, So admits, competing against “the guys is a little intimidating.”

The team has tried to make learning the game and practicing easier for women.

“They don’t have to go out on the court and see if they like [the sport] with a guy, and then, all of a sudden, you miss the ball five times, and there’s a guy who has been playing for two years, and you feel bad you’re slowing them down or something,” she said.

So knew from experience that the first day on the courts can be frustrating, so she and other teammates e-mail and call new players to encourage them so they don’t lose new recruits early on.

Squash is a far more popular game in Canada than it is in the United States, So said. One of the problems with recruiting women for the team was that many of her friends didn’t know what the game was.

“I’ve learned to say that it’s kind of like racquetball in a sense that you hit the ball, there are two people on the court … and you hit the ball against the wall and return it,” she said.

But there are more boundaries in squash than racquetball, and the ball is smaller and doesn’t bounce as much.

“It requires the same sort of agility and speed to keep up with the game,” she said.

The squash club practices on The Rock’s squash courts three days a week, coached by a volunteer who also teaches the squash class through RecSports.

In the pictures of players from years past on the walls of the courts, there seemed to be, now and then, a woman who would travel with the men’s team, So said.

But women have never had an official traveling team, or competed in a female tournament. The Harvard tournament will mark the first time.

So said she is feeling nervous and excited about the championships in three weeks.

“I think we’re all really excited to be getting Notre Dame out there and the fact that we have coalesced so well, and worked together and really supported each other, that it’s going to be another great experience for the team,” she said.

So and her teammates plan to spend the next few weeks of training holding mock tournaments against the men’s team.

“The time spent on the court with the guys is a huge help,” she said.

The men’s team, with much more tournament experience, has been giving them pointers about their upcoming inaugural meet, she said, telling them to have fun and try their best.

They know the women’s team is feeling a little unsure in the weeks leading up to the tournament.

The team will probably make some mistakes, So said, and might struggle as they adjust to a completely new competitive situation.

But they will draw on their training and on the pointers they’ve received from the men’s team, So said.

“I know we are going to try really hard,” she said. “Everyone’s really pumped up and ready to go.”