There’s something about a team in adversity. With its back against the wall and hands tied, you almost end up hoping there’s a success story in there, somewhere. Sport thrives on such occasions where a small team fights against all odds and tries to achieve the impossible or, at least, something close to it. It appeals to the romantic in us to see triumph trump disaster at the end of the day. But Boston University’s Squash Club just ‘wants some milk’.
Before every game, the team huddles up, crouching down to share one last word of encouragement and breaks off chanting: “Bring the milk!” It’s a tradition that has been around since the club was first formed in 2008. The team was planning a home game and deciding on who brings Gatorade, water and energy bars, when Yasmin Atefi, one of the few girls on the team, volunteered: “I’ll bring the milk.” The guys had a good laugh when Atefi showed up with a milk carton the next day and named her the “milk maiden”. From there the ‘milk joke’ carried on and the team still uses it as their cheer.
BU’s squash team has, in the recent past, experienced a good measure of success. Having won their division of nationals on two previous occasions, the team capped off its most successful season last year when they made it all the way to the ‘Division E’ finals of the College Squash Association National Team Championships held at Yale. They finished the season 34th in the country and are ranked the sixth best club team. But just when things were looking to be on the up, the wheels started falling off.
Captain of the team and President of the Club, Ben Bunjapamai from Thailand, had to sit out their last three fixtures against Tufts, Northeastern and Boston College due to a hamstring injury he suffered during his deciding match against MIT in the season’s opener. Asa Tyler, who played number five on the team, recently graduated, while last year’s President Jacob Roscoe and senior Map Teeravithayapinyo, are both studying abroad for this semester. Paulo Damoura, in his second year of college is working two jobs and doesn’t have time for the squash team and then there’s Humzah Mahmood, who has a medical condition where his muscles are too weak so doctors don’t allow him to play. With a big chunk of their key line-up missing, BU squash is struggling.
South Africa’s Allan Chen, a strongly built sophomore at 5 feet 4 inches, reflected on their performance thus far. “How I would rank the season, honestly we’ve had a very bad start,” Chen said. “I think we’re not as fit as we should be, we’re not as skilled as we should be, particularly because we have a lot of new players and not very many returning players.”
It was 9:15 p.m. on a Sunday. At the basement of BU’s FitRec Center, behind the closed glass door of squash court number four, the team gathered for their usual post-game meeting. BU had just lost to their arch rivals BC 9-0 at home and the spirits were not exactly high. All nine defeated guys, donned in sweaty red and white terrier colors, sat down in a circle to stretch – exhausted, dejected, some even mad. In the centre of this circle, the tall lanky figure of Bunjapamai hovered over them with his hands on his hips. It was not a pretty sight. But even from a distance and behind that closed space, you got a sense of where this team wants to be or, at least, where Bunjapamai wants it to be. And it most certainly is not where it’s at right now. Four losses in four games this season. Not the start BU squash was looking for.
But that in itself is not the only problem hanging over their heads for now. The absence of a proper coach, because they would rather save up for travel and other expenses than hire an expensive coach with their limited funds, really shows when BU goes up against the likes of Tufts and Northeastern, who both have qualified coaches at their disposal. “Not having a coach is definitely a disadvantage, I mean Ben is also improving and learning as he goes along, so he tells us whatever he knows best,” said Ali Vohra from India, one of the new inclusions to the team.
Chen was playing the number two player from Tufts at BU’s FitRec Center on a Saturday afternoon. He engaged his opponent in hard-hitting, extended rallies only to be overpowered at the end. With each point lost, Chen would start swinging away wildly with even more pace but, to his detriment, was outmaneuvered each time. Frustration clearly etched on Chen’s face, he banged his hand against the dirty glass door twice and stomped his way out of the court after the first game. Bunjapamai walked over towards him by the water fountain and grabbed him by the shoulders and looked down, a good six inches between the two, and said: “Buy yourself time.” The two got into an animated discussion of how the match could be turned around, a scenario that could’ve been avoided had they enjoyed the services of an informed coach.
Moreover, BU Squash being a club sport does not have the perks that varsity teams do. They have to fight for funding in the club hierarchy, court time, vans and go out to collect donations just so their out of pocket expenses are kept to a minimum.
It was 5:15 p.m. on a Saturday and the BU Squash team had just entered the Badger & Rosen Squashbusters Center at Northeastern University. With a total of eight state-of-the-art squash courts lined up, it was quite a spectacular facility. As the guys gradually put their bags down and shared a word amongst each other, Bunjapamai barked from behind them: “Let’s go! Get changed. Why are you standing?” The team dutifully obliged and made its way to the practice courts. Chris Schwagerl, another new member of the team, attempted to go over to ask Northeastern for a practice ball. “No, don’t ask them and show that you don’t own a f-ing squash ball!” Bunjapamai snapped at him. With the team 20 minutes away from the start of the fixture, Bunjapamai was clearly on edge and the team knew it.
As the President, Captain and stand-in coach, Bunjapamai seems to run the show singlehandedly. Playing the managerial role, he takes care of all behind the scenes stuff, from organizing matches and contacting coaches from other colleges to scheduling all the team practices. Then there’s the mountain of paperwork he has to cope with for the club sports office, like submitting the players’ medical and registration forms, filing in the pre- and post-event forms amongst others. For their away trips, he arranges for drivers before hand and handles the various dues such as tournament fees, making sure to meet the deadlines.
As Bunjapamai patrolled each court during warm-up ahead of their game with Northeastern, shouting instructions: “C’mon, I want to see some movement”, “Tie your shoelaces Aahan”, “Get on the f-ing court, let’s go!” there was a military aura about him. He’s a disciplinarian for sure and amidst all the chaos of problems, Bunjapamai is trying to keep his team together and strong.
“Ben’s been very dedicated,” said Chen. “He’s got a kind of funny personality. He organizes everything but freaks out when things go wrong and kind of panics. He doesn’t really know how to keep a cool head.” This is also evident from the drastic punishments he imposes on his team. If one of the players was late for practice, Bunjapamai made everyone else on the team, except that player, run three miles just so the whole team was suffering because of one player’s mistake.
“I’m a pretty intense guy (laughter)”, admits Bunjapamai. “I’m one of the guys who’s more experienced on the team so I feel like it’s kind of my job to help people.”
But all in all, the team acknowledges and respects the leadership role of Bunjapamai. “He’s a hardworking captain, definitely,” said Sweden’s Tom Hagglof, an advertising major at the College of Communication. “He takes a lot of his personal time to work with the team, which we really appreciate.”
Arush Sabherwal, Vice President of the club was all praise as well. “He knows exactly what he’s saying,” Sabherwal said. “Without him being here we wouldn’t be in this position honestly, with the amount of effort he puts in.”
Scenes from their memorable victory over BC in December last year were still fresh on the players’ minds. Their eyes lit up as they talked about it. The entire team was super nervous since they had never beaten BC before. The game was at Northeastern and with the way they had been playing all season long, the team knew they had a shot. With each win, the tension slowly turned into elated happiness as the team realized they were on their way to a historic win. Even the lower and middle ranked players like Mahmood, Damoura and Teeravithayapinyo contributed with some good wins and Chen clinched the fixture for BU with still two matches to go. “That was definitely one of the big ones,” said Hagglof smiling.
It is perhaps moments like these that keep BU squash motivated despite the challenges they face. They are a close knit group who love to play squash. “Because we’re all around the same age, so we have an understanding of what we want the team to become,” said Chen.
With plenty of games coming up in their schedule and the prospect of the players abroad returning back in the spring, Bunjapamai is optimistic that they will be able to turn their season around.
In other words, come spring and by the time nationals come around, Bunjapamai and the team will be hoping to relive their glory days and, finally, “Bring the milk!”