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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The writing, Mark Allen said, was literally on the wall.
Standing in the $12.4 million McArthur Squash Center, in front of Virginia's flashy center court, complete with a V-logo, the Cavaliers coach said Friday's announcement that the school is elevating its club squash team to varsity status shouldn't come as a major shock.
"No one would build a center like this if they weren't very, very serious about where they wanted to take the sport," said Allen.
Men's and women's squash will become U.Va.'s 26th and 27th varsity sports this year, and will be only the third program in the nation to offer scholarships, joining Drexel and George Washington, Allen said.
Virginia will be the first Power 5 school to offer men's squash as a varsity sport, and it will join Stanford as the only Power 5 women's school to do so.
Players on both teams hoped that varsity status was in the program's future, but were pleasantly surprised to find out it happened now.
"I really didn't think it would happen this quickly," Julia Thompson, a rising sophomore player, said. "I thought maybe by my fourth year we'd be varsity."
Thompson said she's noticed the pennants hanging from lightposts on campus, adorned with photos of other varsity athletes.
"Now we're in the club," she said.
Thompson said she was looking forward to getting some of the athletics swag — such as the U.Va. backpacks athletes at the school tote around campus.
"We've been really looking forward to this for a long time, really hoping for it," said fellow rising sophomore Harrison Kapp. "I think it'll be really cool to have all the perks that athletes have in regards to academic advisors and anything else that'll happen."
Allen spent four years building the program.
Competing as a club team this past season, the Virginia women went 16-6 and ranked No. 13 in the final College Squash Association poll. The CSA governs college squash, since it's not an NCAA-sanctioned sport.
The men's team went 14-7 and ranked No. 18.
Each team has 15 players on its roster, the number Allen said he'll stick with going forward. In college squash, nine players compete in a match, all in singles contests.
"Last season was probably the pinnacle of our capabilities as far as being a club team," said Allen. "I don't think we were going to be able to progress much beyond where we've got to without taking this next step. I feel like the timing couldn't be more perfect. The rise that we've had has gotten us to this point."
Sharing a facility with Virginia's three-time reigning national champion men's tennis program has given Allen and his squash team something to shoot for.
"Being right here at Boars Head, it's been so much fun to watch the success the men's tennis team is having," said Allen. "To see that from the sidelines has only made me more excited about trying to grow the squash team to reach for the same achievements. Obviously, U.Va. is known now (for) tennis. Hopefully we can change that to being the premier rackets college in the country."
The coach and players said it was hard to schedule matches, especially against top opponents, in the past.
"A lot of programs wouldn't come down and play us just because we were just a club team," Kapp said.
But this coming season, Virginia will host matches with Drexel, George Washington and Stanford's women's team.
"We have three top 10 schools coming to play us," Allen said. "I don't think that would have happened without this move."
And having varsity status will change the outlook on the recruiting front. Allen said top recruits sometimes turned up their noses at U.Va.'s club status, despite the school's facilities and rankings.
Now, the varsity status, combined with scholarship money, will make Virginia a recruiting player nationally and abroad.
Allen said American squash has grown in recent years and now has the talent to carry a successful college program.
"To be competitive 10 years ago, you probably had no choice but to recruit internationally," Allen, a native of England who coached in South Africa, said. "U.S. junior squash is getting strong enough and deep enough now that if we're able to recruit and attract the top American players, that's as good as anything that's out there."
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