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Sophomore Omar Hafez climbs the glass to celebrate his clinching win that delivered Penn its first men’s squash national championship.

Head coach Gilly Lane and Penn men’s squash win it all.

As he made the 10-minute walk down 33rd Street, from the Arlen Specter US Squash Center to his office in the Penn Squash Center, Gilly Lane C’07 G’14 LPS’20 didn’t quite know how to feel.

The head coach of the Penn men’s squash team was still his gregarious self, stopping by a food truck to chat with an acquaintance and offering directions to New Deck to a group of people looking for a bite to eat on a beautiful early March afternoon. But questions swirled in his brain—from the practical (how do I respond to 275 text messages?) to the existential (what do I do after reaching a career pinnacle?).

Less than an hour earlier, his men’s squash team completed a 7–1 victory over Trinity College at the Specter Center to capture the program’s first national championship, an exceedingly rare feat for any Penn sports team. It had been a goal Lane had been working toward since arriving at Penn 20 years earlier, first as an All-American squash player and then as an assistant and now head coach.

“Sometimes you look back and you’re like, Wow, because I can hit a ball around a box, I’m at this prestigious university,” Lane said. “Every day I’ve been on campus, I’m always trying to honor the faith people have had in me.”

Two years ago, Lane had built a team good enough to end the stranglehold a handful of other schools have had on the Potter Cup, the annual tournament pitting the top eight college squash teams against one another. But, in front of a raucous crowd at the Penn Squash Center, Harvard spoiled the party, beating the Quakers in the 2022 title match and ending a magical season in which Penn had been ranked No. 1 and captured the attention of campus [“Squashing the Narrative (and Competition),” May|Jun 2022].

After losing in the national semifinals to Trinity last year, the Quakers won their first 12 contests of 2023–24 before dropping 5–4 decisions to Trinity and Princeton to close the regular season. The latter loss resulted in a shared Ivy title between Penn and Princeton. But the Quakers got their vengeance in the Potter Cup, routing Columbia in the quarterfinals before edging Princeton 5–4 in the semis and then knocking off Trinity to become the sixth program to enter the national championship club (joining Princeton, Trinity, Yale, Harvard, and the US Naval Academy).

After waiting more than 80 years to win their first Potter Cup (which has been contested since 1942), the Quakers waited several more agonizing minutes with the title within reach. Leading 4–1, the Quakers had three players competing on different courts at the same time, vying to win the clinching match. Across two levels of the Specter Center, fans, parents, and teammates scrambled to position themselves near the court that might decide the championship. Lane sat behind freshman Varun Chitturi while glancing at a TV to keep tabs on junior Roger Baddour, and occasionally darting around a corner to see sophomore Omar Hafez on one of the all-glass show courts. Baddour’s opponent fended off eight match balls, before Hafez ended up playing the role of hero. “I didn’t actually see it,” Lane admits. “But I could hear the roar. And it was a Penn roar.” Chitturi won his match just moments later, joining in on a celebration that began with Hafez jumping atop the glass.

“That was so hard,” Hafez said about his post-match leap. “But for me, I can do anything for this team.” The sophomore from Egypt said he came to Penn “with one dream: to win a national championship.” Down the road, he also hopes to follow fellow Egyptian Aly Abou Eleinen C’22, a star senior on Penn’s 2021–22 squad, into the professional ranks.

Lane was pleased that someone with Hafez’s “tenacity, hunger, and passion” won the clincher (though he laughed that the glass jumping probably won’t be “a lifelong tradition” due to safety concerns). “He’s a big-time, big-moment player who at such a young age has taken a lot of weight on his shoulders,” Lane said. “And he’s come through.”

Hafez felt the support of his teammates loudly cheering every point, including senior Nick Spizzirri, who plays in the No. 1 spot and was the only Quaker to lose on the day. “Nick has been the person that’s always won in every big situation for us, and he loses in the national final,” Lane said. “And what does he do? He takes three minutes to rebound and then he’s back out supporting his teammates from the front row.”

“Even though I lost, I’d say it’s probably the best day of my life,” said Spizzirri, who went on to advance to the national semifinals of the College Squash Association Individual Championships the following week and was named a first team All-American along with teammates Hafez and Ivy League Rookie of the Year Salman Khalil. “I’ve been thinking about winning this tournament since, honestly, before college—when I was still in high school.”

Spizzirri said that the postseason heartbreak he and the team endured in each of the last two years was a motivating factor this time around, and Lane noted that the graduated players from the 2021–22 squad set the stage for this year’s breakthrough. Many of them, in fact, were in the crowd to cheer on their former teammates at the Potter Cup. As soon as the match ended, Lane’s first FaceTime call was from Abou Eleinen in Egypt to congratulate him.

The head coach has since heard from several of his old professors, and the team got a visit from Penn Interim President Larry Jameson. “To bring that joy to a lot of people is amazing,” Lane said. “You don’t realize who’s following you until something like this happens.”

There’s no reason to think the program’s success won’t continue. Everyone from this year’s team will return next season, including Spizzirri and fellow senior Dana Santry, who still have eligibility because COVID-19 wiped out their freshman campaigns. And the team’s international recruiting pipeline remains strong, with standout players hailing from Egypt, Malaysia, Canada, and across the US.

But before looking too far ahead at the prospect of delivering his alma mater back-to-back championships—or better yet, a potential dynasty—Lane wants to savor the first one. He wants to remember those three days of trying to stay calm however he could, be it listening to “chilled out music” or wearing the same pair of Lululemon pants, Penn cap, and Nike sneakers that will be signed by the team and never worn again, residing on a shelf in his office next to the championship trophy. And he’ll continue to effuse over the “pure love and happiness” his players felt for each other and their coach, who they hoisted in the air—and almost dropped—after the trophy presentation.

“You could see that there were 16 guys that just loved each other,” Lane said. “And now they’re going to be connected for the rest of their lives because of this monumental moment.” —DZ

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