‘A rollercoaster’: The resurgence of Stanford women’s squash

The Stanford women’s squash team did not win a single match during the 2021-22 season. Now, coming off their first conference championship earlier this month, the No. 6 Cardinal have a chance to win the College Squash Association National Championships this week. 

Senior Si Yi Ma, one of the team’s veterans, called the program’s rejuvenation “a rollercoaster.”

“In 2021-22, we were last in Division C,” she said. That year, the team had only six players most matches. “But the following year we had five freshmen, and this year we have four more.”

“This was a big win,” said head coach and U.S. Squash Hall of Famer Mark Talbott. “Two years ago, we didn’t even win a match … We had lost two years of recruiting, and a couple of girls stopped playing and one player transferred.” 

The program currently boasts a full lineup of skilled players with varying strengths. Ma focuses on her shot-making and ending points early, while sophomore Khusi Kukadia’s strength is her tactical game. Freshman Madison Ho’s biggest asset, on the other hand, is her speed and shot variety.

“The team has gotten more creative and experienced on the court,” Talbott said. “They mix up shots a lot more and the players have hands that can do something with the ball.”

The resurgent Stanford team is only two seasons removed from the University’s 2020 decision, later reversed, to discontinue the squash program and 10 other varsity sports. After a third-place finish in last year’s Mid-Atlantic Squash Conference (MASC) championship, they took this season’s Gaynor Cup, beating No. 5 Virginia 7-2. The win avenged the team’s 0–9 loss to the Cavaliers in the same tournament last year.

Against Virginia, Ho, playing in the second position, freshman Yuvna Gupta, playing on the 5’s court and Kukadia, playing on the 7’s court, all dropped their first set but rallied for 3-1 wins. Freshman Mariana Narvaez Dardon, playing on the 3’s court, also won 3-1 and freshman Maeve Baker, playing sixth, and senior Lucia Bicknell, both won in three straight sets. Playing on the 1’s court, Ma fell in four sets, despite coming back from a 3-10 deficit in the last, and sophomore Leah McGillicuddy, playing ninth, went down in straight sets. Ho, Gupta, Baker and Bicknell all posted a 3-0 record through the entire tournament. 

The win was the Cardinal women’s first against a College Squash Association top-five team since February 2019, when Stanford bested No. 2 Princeton.

This season, the team has excelled despite its hectic schedule. “People used to joke about Stanford squash, being part of the Mid-Atlantic Conference,” Talbott said. “But now that Stanford has joined the ACC, we’re ahead of the curve.”

Cross-country travel is somewhat limited by playing several matches on each trip. Still, the athletes said their schedule puts a premium on setting priorities and managing their academic obligations.

“The academic advisors to the team have been great,” Ho said. “But it’s up to you to stay on top of it.”

“As student athletes, we must learn to prioritize,” Kukadia added.

Talbott said he has been impressed by his player’s ability to manage the challenges arising from their travel schedule: “I know that all the athletes here at Stanford are very bright,” he said. “But our squash team is exceptional.”

As an international sport, the Cardinal have brought together players from around the world, representing Canada, China, India, Malaysia and Mexico, in addition to the United States.

Some players like Ma, who is from Malaysia, come from places with a rich squash history. Nicol David, perhaps the greatest women’s squash player ever, hails from the Southeast Asian country.

Others, like sophomore Khushi Kukadia — who grew up in Manhasset, N.Y. — are from places where squash is not as popular. Kukadia’s high school did not have a squash team, compelling her to commute to New York City to develop her game.

“A lot of my high school classmates had no idea what squash was,” Kukadia said. “Some thought it had something to do with cooking.”

But despite their different backgrounds, the players are united by their passion for squash and their support of each other. Their unity is readily apparent at team practices — at a recent practice session, Talbott was effusive about the group’s togetherness.

“This team is by far the most cohesive I’ve ever had,” Talbott said. “They all really like each other even though squash is an individual sport.”

Next year, the team will welcome four new world-class freshmen recruited by Talbott’s assistant coach and son, Nick. The hope is that the Cardinal will have a legitimate chance at a national championship in a year or two and, in the process, compel some Eastern teams to travel to Stanford for matches here. 

But, for now, the Cardinal women are concentrating on next week’s national championships. “We are getting into the mindset of playing nationals,” Kukadia said, “and are focused on getting big upsets.”