They packed in tight on the third floor of Trinity College's Ferris Athletic Center on Saturday, necks craning to get a glimpse of the rapid-fire action playing out simultaneously on 10 squash courts.
From one side of each court's clear glass walls came the steady thwap of a tiny rubber ball, of sneakers screeching against the shining wooden floors. From the other came a spectator buzz in a layer of languages, the names printed on the backs of T-shirts doing their best translation: Peru, Colombia, Guyana, Canada, U.S.A.
"Antonio! Antonio! Magnifico!" Trinity men's coach Paul D. Assaiante shouted to a sweaty player trudging past his office door.
"These kids here," he said, "are unbelievable."
This weekend, more than 550 young players from 20 countries descended on a snowy, slushy Hartford to compete in the 2007 U.S. Junior Open Squash Championships — what organizers are touting as the most diverse, most talented pool of under-19 competitors yet.
And while it's the first time the city has played host to the prestigious event, it seems the obvious venue with Trinity's long and proud squash tradition, its growing international reputation and its nine consecutive national championships.
"Squash," says Assaiante, "is a religion at Trinity."
Through Tuesday, hundreds who've made the pilgrimage here will play in an estimated 2,000 matches in the Travelers-sponsored open, held at three sites: Trinity, Loomis-Chaffee School in Windsor and Westminster School in Simsbury.
While so many of these players hail from overseas, where the sport has thrived for years, the number picking up the long-handled racket in the U.S. is exploding. The sport long regarded as the snooty domain of private country clubs is beginning to spread to the masses.
The New York Times recently reported a 20 percent jump in U.S. players over the last two years among the under-18 set. And U.S. Squash, the national governing body, measured a three-fold jump in participation the National High School Team Championship over just one year.
Players and coaches at the start of the Junior Open Saturday held a trio of theories as to why the jump, and why now.
They say overseas players drawn for years to the U.S. by solid programs like Trinity's have lent an international luster to squash, proving valuable teachers to their stateside counterparts, who tend to be newer to the sport. They say squash, along with similarly obscure sports such as crew and lacrosse, is increasingly seen by parents as an entree for their children to the nation's competitive universities. ("You've got less participation, but a very active and aggressive recruitment program," explains Assaiante).
And, they say that recent outreach to inner city youth across the country through programs like CitySquash in New York and SquashBusters in Boston is finally succeeding in making the sport more accessible, and sparking more interest.
"It's really becoming more of an everyday person's game," says Assaiante.
Some players are also hoping more women will pick up the sport, long viewed as a blue-blooded boys' game.
Stephanie Vogel recalls that her father first attempted to introduce her to squash in middle school. She shrugged it off, disinterested. But once she got to Kingswood-Oxford, a West Hartford prep school, she picked up the racket and hasn't stopped.
But the dearth of young women has been a challenge, says Vogel, now a junior who has had to recruit her fellow female classmates to boost the team's numbers, now up to seven on varsity.
"It's a lot of fun, and it's [more challenging] than tennis" says Vogel, 16. "But it's kind of unfortunate that I'm one of the only girls in the area who plays outside of school."
Some are betting that's about to change. Former Trinity player Yvain Badan, 26, likens the sport's position to that of golf's a decade ago.
"I think in the U.S., it's one of the fastest growing sports right now," says Badan, who came to Trinity five years ago from his native Switzerland. "And just as golf was very exclusive, but then began to open up ... that's what I see happening right now with squash."
As proof of the U.S.'s growing interest and proficiency in squash, players on Saturday were quick to point out that the No. 2 seeds in both the men's and women's both hail from the U.S.
It's exciting, says Badan, now a coach in Rye, N.Y., because the more momentum built around squash, the greater its chances of becoming an Olympic sport.
And having the Junior Open hosted by Trinity?
"It's great because here at Trinity, this is a place where squash is so beloved," says Badan, at the Open to coach his own young players.
He pauses. "I don't know how to say this modestly..."
No need for modesty.
"It's the home of champions."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at