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January 20, 2012 > Local student places second at U.S. Junior Open Squash Championships

Local student places second at U.S. Junior Open Squash Championships

By Chinmai Raman

The U.S. Junior Open Squash Championships is an annual tournament hosted at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. This year, a record field of over 750 competitors, ages 10 to 19 years old, from over 20 countries, entered the competition making it the largest individual junior squash tournament in the world. It is also considered one of the most prestigious, together with the World Junior Open and the British Junior Open. Fremont student Cassandra Ong competed in this year's U.S. Junior Open and placed second in her age division, GU11 (Girls under 11), beating out the top U.S. players; she lost in the finals to the top-seeded Egyptian girl.

Squash is a racquet sport played by two or four players, comparable to racquetball. Players compete in a four-walled court and use a hard, rubber ball to play the game. A squash racquet is similar to a tennis racket, only more oblique with less surface area. Squash is like tennis in that it involves a service and hitting the ball back-and-forth between competitors, but the similarities end there. After the initial service, players can hit the ball on the side or back walls at any time, making for a very interesting game. With such intriguing game play, it is no surprise that there are over 49,908 squash courts in 188 countries around the world.

Although squash is not as popular as many other sports in the U.S., it is one of the fastest growing. In recent years, the West Coast has seen a big growth in new players, probably due to the big influx of middle class immigrants from other countries in Asia, Europe and South America where squash is very popular. In the U.S., the East Coast is the "center" of squash. The Ivy League and many other universities have very strong collegiate teams - Harvard and Princeton in particular. Living on the West Coast, Cassandra was undeterred.

Cassandra started playing squash once a week about two years ago. Both she and her brother Clarence showed a natural aptitude for the game so in 2010, they both began training more intensively, about three to four times a week. Thanks to training with her brother and weekly coaching from squash coaches, Ariel Labra and Jonathan Perry, as well as support and encouragement of other squash players and friends, she has won many tournaments in her age division (GU11: Girls Under 11) through the year, culminating with her second place finish in the U.S. Junior Open in December. She is on track to end the 2011-2012 tournament season in March 2012 as the top-ranked GU11 player in the U.S.

"The U.S. Junior Open was the biggest tournament we have attended," says Cassandra's family. "It was exciting to see so many players from all over the world compete on the court [and] quite eye opening to see the high level of squash." Egypt was the most successful country team and won many of the top and second spots. For the U.S. players, it was a great experience and gave them a higher goal to reach for. They meet each other in various other national tournaments and know the level of each other's games, but they realize they have to step up another level to compete on the world stage.

International competition was a very enriching experience for Cassandra. Although they might compete fiercely on the court, the kids are very friendly off-court and enjoyed meeting each other and playing friendly games on the court. "Harvard set up the facilities very nicely," says Cassandra. The Harvard Murr Athletic Center is a state-of-the-art facility with 14 squash courts. During the pre-tournament reception, they set up a court with a speed sensor, and the players enjoyed taking turns hitting the ball to see their top speed. "I think the highest number I saw was from a 17 year-old boy which was 188 miles per hour," she says. There was even a Wii station set up for the kids to play an electronic version of the game although some preferred to just have fun playing the real thing!

Photo Caption: Cassandra Ong

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