The Staples High School gym — and many away ones — rocked this winter. Fans flocked in, and roared their support, as the Wreckers chased their first FCIAC championship since 1963.
Girls basketball and wrestling drew plenty of spectators too. In the fall, the stands fill for football and soccer; the big spring draws are baseball and lacrosse.
Athletes in other sports, meanwhile, pursue their passions virtually unnoticed. No one other than a devoted parent attends, for example, a squash match. Few teachers ever ask students,, “How did the squash team do yesterday?”
But boys and girls squash flourishes at the high school — well, at their home courts in Norwalk, anyway.
In just 8 years, the program has grown from 1 to 4 teams (boys and girls varsity and junior varsity). Both varsities just competed in the national tournament.
And they’re doing it with a coach who — less than a decade ago — helped form that first club.
In his first 2 years at Staples, Shane Fries played soccer. But his father — a longtime squash player — had introduced him to that sport. As a junior, Fries and Mia Krishnamurthy started Staples’ first squash team.
“It’s a great game, with physical, mental and technical aspects,” Fries says.
“You can’t power your way through. You have to concentrate hard. And there’s a steep learning curve.”
Though squash is played 1-on-1, it’s a team sport. Seven players compete for their school; whoever wins the most matches gets the victory.
When Fries helped start the club, only a couple of players knew the game. Most were tennis players, looking to stay in shape in the off-season. That’s still the case with some, but more freshmen come out each year with squash backgrounds.
It is not an official Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference sport. Staples competes in the FairWest League, against schools from Fairfield, Darien, New Canaan, Greenwich, Harrison, Rye, Scarsdale, Bronxville and Briarcliff Manor. It’s the largest public school conference in the country.
Fries’ route to coaching began while he was still in high school. His senior internship was with Squash Haven, a non-profit program in New Haven that combines teaching and playing with academic support.
Fries captained his team at New York University, where he majored in computer science and minored in finance. But he continued volunteering with Squash Haven.
He worked from home during COVID as a software engineer, and began coaching part-time at Intensity in Norwalk. He met high school and middle school players there.
When the Staples job opened up this season, Fries jumped in.
Running a squash program is not easy. Intensity has only 4 courts. The increasing number of players puts a premium on practice time.
And because the courts are in a private facility, the cost to play can be high. That could deter newcomers.
Fries hopes to get more financial support from Staples’ athletic department, to give as many players as possible a chance.
Despite the challenges, Fries shepherded the boys and girls teams to strong seasons. They showed well at the national tournament in Philadelphia last month, competing against the top teams in the country.
A national tournament appearance did not generate much buzz at Staples.
But for the several dozen squash players, the love — and “intensity” of the sport — is all they need.
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