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Trinity College Men's Squash: 200 Straight Wins, One Family


February 21, 2009

Paul Assaiante, the men's squash coach at Trinity, was sitting outside his shoebox-shape office Wednesday, looking in at his players, who were crowded around a TV watching a black-and-white tape of a previous match.

"Look in that room," Assaiante said. "You've got South Africa, Pakistan, India, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and they all get along."

Trinity is seeking its 11th straight Potter Trophy the championship of college squash and 11th straight perfect season this weekend at the College Squash Association team championships at Princeton. Trinity opened Friday with a 9-0 victory over Dartmouth, its 200th consecutive victory, extending the longest streak in college sports, and plays Harvard today in a semifinal. The final is Sunday.

The Bantams have been so good for so long they have forced media outlets from all over the country as well as from the capital city of Connecticut to pay attention to them. All come to ask about the streak.

But for Assaiante, what is happening in his office on a slushy February afternoon is the good stuff. Trinity has talent, to be certain. Assaiante recruits top junior players, and he recruits from all over the world.

The trick is turning a collection of talent into a team and a family.

"A lot of these guys when they get off the plane, they have that look in their eye of, 'I can't even read that sign. Does it say go? Does it say stop?'" assistant coach James Montano said. "We know what they're feeling."

Senior Manek Mathur remembers his first day. He was fresh off a plane from Mumbai, India, when Assaiante assembled the team. He told them to look at each other, and then he told them they were brothers.

"When you are born into a family, you don't get to choose your brother, but you have to get along with your brother," Assaiante said.

Everything else has flowed from that first day.

"You don't have a choice," Mathur said. "We all have a common situation because we are all very far from home and all we have is each other. If we are not there for each other, no one is going to be there for us."

The 23-man Trinity roster has players from India, Sweden, Pakistan, Jamaica, Colombia and Malaysia, in addition to the United States. There have been players from Botswana and Zimbabwe. Next season, there will be a player from El Salvador, the son of a former president.

"It's different than any team I've ever played on," said senior Charlie Tashjian, of Greenwich. "You wouldn't think that people from all these different cultures would be able to come together the way we have, but it's something the coaches work hard at and we work hard at."

The question is: how? How does Trinity avoid the political and social pitfalls that come with assembling a team that often has players on opposite sides of global disputes?

To begin with, Assaiante has a blunt rule designed to keep things in order.

"What we tell them is, 'If you can't agree to disagree, then shut up,'" said Assaiante, 56. " West Hartford and Simsbury can't agree. How are you going to change the mind of someone whose background is so different from yours that you can't comprehend how he is looking at life?"

What Assaiante buys with the shut-up rule is time for his players to get to know one another as teammates and as great players in a sport they love. Once that happens, it's mostly about straightening out cultural misunderstandings.

"We had a boy from Botswana years ago," Assaiante said. "We had a team dinner, and that night he calls me in sheer panic. He said, 'Where I come from we don't celebrate before we play.' It can be something as simple as that. We try to get them to put all their stuff aside and say, 'This is my family.'"

Once trust is built, everything becomes easier. Especially eating.

"I didn't know what Indian food was; I didn't know what Chinese food was; I didn't know anything about spices," said Daniel Echavarria, a sophomore from Colombia. "We have a Malaysian kid on the team [Randy Lim] who knows everything about spices. It's great."

For Tashjian, the world is now smaller.

"Over Thanksgiving there was all that was happening in India," he said. "You see that pop up on the news and the first thing you think of is your teammates, and you wonder how they are doing, because they are a part of your life and you are a part of theirs."

As with all dynasties, it seems as if Trinity always will win, but, of course, it won't. Someday, a team will beat the Bantams and the streak will end. What then?

"A guy asked us the other day, what is going to happen when the streak ends?" Assaiante said. "I said, 'Well, the sky is going to get really dark; the rivers are going to turn red; and frogs are going to fall out of the sky.'"

He paused. He looked into his office, where his players were studying film. He smiled.

"We'll start again."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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