PHILADELPHIA - Wednesday's battle between No. 1 Princeton and No. 2 Penn was hyped as one of the biggest matches of the year in collegiate squash. It more than lived up to the billing, as Penn fought back from an early 4-0 deficit to take the victory. Junior Tara Chawla earned the match-clinching victory, taking a 3-2 decision as the large crowd at Ringe Courtssqueezed around the court.
The match got off to a rough start for the Quakers as No. 6 Christina Matthias fell in three games, 9-5, 9-6, 9-6. At the same time, No. 3 Sydney Scott was dropping her match, 3-1 (9-2, 4-9, 9-6, 9-2) and No. 9 Lauralynn Drury was unable to complete a comeback, falling in five games (9-3, 10-8, 4-9, 4-9, 9-6).
"We knew this was going to be a hard fought, 5-4 or 6-3 type of match," Chawla said afterwards. "That meant we were going to lose a few matches. It didn't matter when that happened, we just had to keep fighting."
The Tigers extended their lead to 4-0 when junior Emily Goodwin fell at No. 8, 9-1, 9-1, 9-3. Princeton had yet to lose a flight all season, but on the main court, junior Alisha Turner was about to make that change.
Playing at No. 2, Turner showed no fear going up against Neha Kumar, the third-ranked player in the nation. Jumping out to a quick 2-0 lead (9-4, 9-6), Turner gave the Quakers the spark they needed when she slammed the door with a 9-2 victory in the third game, handing the Tigers their first individual match loss of the season.
At the same time that Turner was turning up the heat on Princeton, No. 5 Britt Hebden was doing the same. After claiming a 9-3 triumph in the first game, Hebden and her opponent, Kaitlin Sennatt, went back-and-forth in the second game. Hebden emerged victorious, taking a 10-8 decision. With the momentum behind her, she seized control in the third game, winning 9-1.
Despite having lost the first four matches to come off the courts, the Quakers were still in it after two rounds, down 4-2 with three matches left to play. They would need to claim all three to take the victory.
At No. 7, freshman Annie Madeira took on Maggie O'Toole, a junior from Princeton. Looking like anything but a green rookie, Madeira calmly outdueled O'Toole in the first game, 9-7. Rebounding from a 9-5 loss in the second game, Madeira took her game up a notch and kept Penn in the match with a 9-2, 9-3 finish to take the match in four games.
On the main court, the marquee matchup of the night featured No. 1 Kristen Lange taking on Amanda Siebert. Ranked second in the nation, Lange looked like a premier player in the collegiate squash world as she methodically took a 2-0 lead o Siebert, 9-5, 10-9. After dropping the third game 9-4, Lange put the hammer down and secured her match in four games, taking a 9-1 decision. The Quakers had come all the way back, and only one match was remaining on the court.
Junior Tara Chawla was the last Quaker on the court, and for Chawla, the night was shaping up to have a storybook ending. On her 21st birthday, she represented the final piece of a momentous comeback that would give the Quakers a victory over rival Princeton, ranked No. 1 in the country, for the first time in five years.
While Lange was finishing her victory, Chawla was beginning hers at No. 4. After an efficient and impressive 9-4 victory in the opening game, Chawla seemed to hit a wall in the next two, losing each by identical 9-2 scores. After finding herself down 6-4 in the fourth game, Chawla fought back. With teammates and fans cheering her on, she broke her opponent Emery Maine's serve and took over, grabbing the next five points to force a pivotal fifth game. By that point, Lange's match had finished and all eyes were on Chawla and Maine.
Maine grabbed the first point of the match, but it was not going to be enough to overcome Chawla's determination.
"Late in the fourth game, she picked up her racked, wiped it off, and smiled at us," said teammate and co-captain Lauralynn Drury, who was among the many Quakers crowded around Chawla's court. "That was when we knew she had it."
After falling behind 1-0, Chawla rattled off the next eight points to take a commanding 8-1 lead and send the crowd into a frenzy. After Maine fought back with the next two points, Chawla broke her serve and slammed a low shot down the right side of the court, just out of Maine's reach, to seal the victory for the Quakers.
The team mobbed Chawla at mid-court, serenading her with a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday." Head Coach Jack Wyant, a 1996 graduate of Princeton in his fourth year at the helm of the Quakers, looked on with a satisfied smile.
"To be honest, I don't really feel anything yet," Wyant said after the match when asked how the win resonated. "I would be lying if I said this win wasn't special, but this is a great group we have here. We know there is a lot more work to be done this season. We will take 24 hours to celebrate this win and then get back to work for Stanford on Saturday."
For the players, the win was viewed as one that would give them momentum heading into the stretch run of the season.
"Every day, we are working hard at practice," said senior co-captain Elizabeth Kern. "This win just showed us that there is a reason for all that hard work. We can look back on this match and see how our hard work in challenge matches all week can pay off for us in the end."
Chawla echoed her captain's sentiments. "This is an amazing feeling," she said, "but we know the season isn't over. We still have some tough matches ahead of us and then the Howe Cup. We know we have to keep working as hard as we have been. but for now this is a great win."
The team is back in action Saturday when it returns to Ringe to face sixth-ranked Stanford. That match is set to get underway at 3 p.m.
1. Kristen Lange def. Amanda Siebert, 3-1. 9-5, 10-9, 4-9, 9-1
2. Alisha Turner def. Neha Kumar, 3-0. 9-4, 9-6, 9-2
3. Jackie Moss def. Sydney Scott, 3-1. 9-2, 4-9, 9-6, 9-2
4. Tara Chawla def. Emery Maine, 3-2. 9-4, 2-9, 2-9, 9-6, 9-3
5. Britt Hebden def. Kaitlin Sennatt, 3-0. 9-3, 10-8, 9-1
6. Casey Riley def. Christina Matthias, 3-0. 9-5, 9-6, 9-6
7. Annie Madeira def. Maggie O'Toole, 3-1. 9-7, 5-9, 9-2, 9-3
8. Carly Grabowski def. Emily Goodwin, 3-0. 9-1, 9-1, 9-3
9. Margaret Kent def. Lauralynn Drury, 3-2. 9-2, 10-8, 4-9, 4-9, 9-6