A Look Back at the Other March Madness

20070402squash.jpg
Photo: iStockphoto.com

With the end of March, and, tonight, the end of its best-known Madness, we thought we'd let you in on a secret: There's a different March Madness, and it took place last month on a different set of hardwood courts. It's the College Squash Association Individual National Championships, which were held at the University of Pennsylvania's Ringe Squash Center, and they were — you may be surprised to hear — as exciting to watch North Carolina State's legendary comeback against Houston in the 1983 NCAA finals, just a little more understated.

It's true: While the Final Four is meticulously followed by tens of million fans worldwide, squash falls somewhere between congressional hearings and croquet in terms of commercial appeal. Still, the men's CSA championships are always dramatic, in their own leisure-class sort of way. Last year's tournament, for example, saw the coronation of Yasser El-Halaby, the Egyptian-born Princeton standout who became the first individual to win the championship four times in a row in the CSA's 76-year history. But then the Michael Jordan of college squash graduated, and this year the door for a new champ opened.

One contender was the man who lost to El-Halaby in the finals last year, a scrappy Harvard senior named Siddharth Suchde, who came into the 2007 tournament seeded as an underdog. He's a precision player who focuses on high-percentage shots, and some observers thought he lacked the will to win the big game — a sort of old-boy-network Kansas Jayhawks. El-Halaby coasted through the first half of the bracket. Then in semi-finals he faced a top-seeded player from dynastic powerhouse Trinity College, which won its ninth straight men's team title in February. But Suchde managed to prevail in three games — squash matches are best of five — thus setting the stage for a rumble with the tourney's No. 2 seed, sophomore Mauricio Sanchez of Princeton. It was last year's tiny George Mason versus powerhouse Florida, all over again.

It was a grudge match, too: Sanchez's passionate attack style had beaten Suchde's methodical game twice in the regular season, so the smart money was on the Princetonian. As the final approached, a capacity crowd of nearly 200 fans — none wearing face paint, natch — filled bleachers and hung over balcony railings to get a glimpse of the action at the "stadium court." Every point on the sauna-hot court was long, and fiercely played. The grueling bout lasted nearly two hours. In the end, the graceful Suchde bested the hard-charging Sanchez in four games with a carefully placed drop shot to take the Potter Cup. CBS Sports hadn't spent a billion dollars to buy broadcast rights, and there was no video montage or inspiring theme song. But for these two young squashies, it made for at least One Shining Moment. —Peter Hyman