Trinity squash nears decade with nation's longest winning streak

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HARTFORD, Conn. -- Upon entering Trinity College's squash facility, the first thing that catches the eye is a thick layer of lavender, "Boogie Nights" style carpet. The second thing is the row of blue championship banners with yellow block lettering hanging on the walls.

Aesthetically, the nine title banners do a nice job of spicing up the decor, adding a little color to the gym's otherwise plain, white walls. On a much larger scale, the banners, and the team that won them, add a vivid hue to the Hartford school's otherwise taupe national athletic reputation.

The squash program that coach Paul Assaiante has built at Trinity is one of Wooden-esque proportions. In fact, the Bantams' dominance on the timber-clad squash courts, playing a one-on-one sport that is a hybrid of racquetball and tennis, could make Wooden's success at UCLA -- on the other hardwood -- seem somewhat ordinary if not unspectacular.

The last time the Trinity men's squash team failed to win a match, Bill Clinton was in the midst of his second term as president and a 14-year-old named LeBron James was at the outset of adolescence.

The Bantams' most recent loss came against Harvard in the College Squash Association National Team Championship finals in February 1998. Since then, Trinity has won 165 straight matches and nine consecutive CSA team titles.

Trinity's winning streak is the longest in collegiate sports history -- other notable streaks include the UCLA men's basketball team's 88-victory run from 1971 to '74 and the North Carolina women's soccer team's tally of 92 (the streak ended with a tie).

Assaiante has all nine of his championship rings in a black case on the desk in his office. Each piece of bling gets a little more lavish than the one that preceded it. The ring commemorating the team's first title in 1998 is faded silver; the one representing Trinity's triumph this past spring is a sparkling gold.

Assaiante calls the jewelry "embarrassing." And he says neither the gold nor the glory was expected.

"No way did I have any vision that any of this was possible," Assaiante said. "When I took over, we just weren't on the screen with the other elite programs."

The streak's roots can be traced back to 1994, when Assaiante was hired by former Trinity president Evan Dobelle to take over Trinity's good, but by no means dynastic, squash program. That season the team struggled mightily, causing the new coach to use some unorthodox tactics. Searching for any type of motivation, Assaiante offered to shave his head if the team could win a modest total of 10 games that season. (A single match in team squash consists of nine games, one for each time two individual players square off on the court. Throughout an entire season, a team plays about 150 games.) The Bantams failed to win 10 games, and Assaiante's salt-and-pepper crew cut remained intact.

After those initial struggles, however, the team began to win -- and win often. The Bantams were ranked in the top 10 at the end of 1995, and in the third season of Assaiante's tenure they advanced to the CSA title match, falling to Harvard by a single game.

Although Trinity's success was encouraging, taking down Harvard or its Ivy League comrades would be a daunting task. The Ivy's men's squash mastery made the ACC's accomplishments on the basketball court look downright pedestrian. Before Trinity's recent run of success, only a handful of schools outside the Ivy League had ever won a collegiate team title in men's squash. Harvard led the Ivy teams with an unfathomable 58 team championships.

Following Trinity's title-match loss, the never-complacent coach knew that if he was going to beat the Harvards and Yales on the court, he would have to beat them in their pursuit of talent.

"[I told the administration] that the best squash is not being played in the United States -- it is being played on foreign lands," Assaiante recalled. "And they said, 'That's perfect. I am all about diversity. I want you to go out and recruit the best international students you can find.'"

From that point forward, Assaiante began a transcontinental search for talented squash players who would be interested in Trinity. He spent part of the time he was traveling with the national team recruiting, utilizing the contacts he made in three decades in the sport to help scout. Once he located a skilled squash man, he would have to sell him on a small-name American college.

"All of these kids have heard of Harvard and Yale before; most of them haven't heard of Trinity College," he said. "Even the word college means something different to them [like junior college in the states].

"So what happens is that I begin to talk these kids and their parents and help them to understand that they'll have a person here who pays unbelievably close attention to their child's development and that they can call me 24 hours a day. It is almost like a surrogate parent."

Assaiante's newfound recruiting strategy paid immediate dividends. In 1996, stocked with a stable full of foreign-born thoroughbreds, the Bantams won their first CSA championship. And in the years following that championship, the team has become even more diverse, which has translated to even more success.

"We have an amazing melting pot," he said. "Most of these kids were the best juniors in their countries."

This past season, Trinity's roster could've been mistaken for a meeting of the Model U.N. The 2006-07 squad was composed of players from nine different countries, including Pakistan, India, Brazil and Zimbabwe.

"We all respect that diversity we have on the team," said Supreet Singh, a sophomore from Mumbai, India. "We can all learn from each other, and the variety is better for our game."

Many of the student-athletes who come to Trinity could play squash on the professional circuit and make a decent living doing it (Assaiante says that a top-10 squash player earns more than $1 million). By attending college in the states and forgoing four years of intense professional training, they are, in effect, choosing a career in something other than professional athletics.

Baset Ashfaq Chaudhry, a freshman all-American for the Bantams, was the No. 1 ranked junior squash player in the world when he arrived in Hartford last year. Chaudhry, who is studying economics and hopes to work in the States after graduating, said the experience of attending college overseas was one he couldn't pass up.

"This was a big opportunity for me," said Chaudhry, a native of Lahore, Pakistan. "If you study in America, you are very respected back home."

The student body has embraced the team's success, showing up at matches in droves. In fact, the Kellner Squash Center, which was built with $1.2 million in private donations, has enjoyed turnouts of more than 1,000 fans for some big matches. There also has been tremendous support from alums and the school's administration – led by president James F. Jones, who made Assaiante Trinity's director of athletic development four years ago and knows every player on the squash team by name.

Like a point guard at Duke or a quarterback at Notre Dame, squash players are the big men on Trinity's campus. That fact is a welcome surprise for many of the team's South Asian players who grew up playing a sport that was largely overshadowed by the region's love of cricket.

"The squash players get a lot of respect for what they do out there," Singh said. "In India, I was a very good player. I did very well … but I never got that respect."

The team's success has also earned the program and the school a little notoriety outside of Hartford. Trinity's men's squash team has been recognized by many media outlets, most notably appearing in a top-plays segment on "SportsCenter." Politicians have also joined the publicity parade; the Bantams have visited the Connecticut governor's mansion eight different times under two administrations, and March 23 is officially Trinity College Squash Day in the state.

Recently, the Bantams' achievements were celebrated before a Boston Red Sox game; the team was brought onto the field and Assaiante threw out the first pitch. It was an event, he says, that made him realize that despite the team's accomplishments, he is far from a celebrity.

"I came off the field and everyone is standing because the next person to pitch is Dice-K," Assaiante said. "Then a Boston fan sees me and says [of the team's championships], 'That's great coach, but what the hell is squash.'"

The fact that the Bantams' star doesn't shine in the same universe as Dice-K and the Red Sox is fine with Assaiante. After all, he didn't get into the coaching business to become famous; he has no desire to be the next Steve Spurrier, the next Billy Donovan. What drives him is an unquenchable hunger to teach student-athletes and cultivate relationships.

"Every year there is a new class here, and I get to meet and greet new friends and become part of a new family," he said. "And that's an honor and a privilege. When the sun comes up, I can't get into my office early enough, and when it goes down I'm sad to go home. I just love it here and I love these kids."

The coach's on-court expertise has allowed the Bantams to become one of the most unbeatable teams in American athletics. It's his life philosophy, however, that has earned him the uniform adoration of his players.

"I came here and spent one year with coach, and he is one of the greatest guys I ever met," Chaudhry said. "The way he carries the whole team is tremendous; it doesn't really matter if you're the No. 1 or No. 3 player on the team."

Adds Singh: "I can say that he is so experienced and he has seen so much sport that he knows what to be with all of us. He says we should always have humility and respect for opponents as well as our fellow players. Those are the values on which our team is based, and I really respect Coach for that."

As far as the streak is concerned, the players say it serves as a motivating factor.

"The fear [of defeat] is always there, but it pushes me to make sure we don't lose a match," Singh said.

Assaiante sees things a little differently. He says that when the streak ends his world won't fade to black, and he won't be singing the Bantam Blues.

"I didn't come here thinking that this would happen, and when it ends, it ends -- I don't care," he said. "My Bible is 'Tuesdays With Morrie' -- I believe in lifetime relationships. I want to teach these boys something about themselves and sports. And whether we are winning or losing, I am still teaching. Actually, when we start losing, I'll do more teaching."

Brendan Murphy is an assistant editor at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Brendan.R.Murphy@espn3.com.