Despite the fact that squash enjoys huge international popularity it flys far under the radar in America and, even though it enjoys relative obscurity, the center of the squash universe, at least in this country, is right here in Brooklyn at the Heights Casino on Montague Street.
There are no card games at this casino, but over the years it has produced some high-level college athletes, national champs and even some professional squash players. Even today, it is as strong as ever and features some of the best and most talented players from around the country and the world.
“The club itself was established in 1904, but the junior squash program was started in the 1970s by Carol Weymuller, which is our pro tournament we hold,” said Linda Elriani, the club’s director of squash. “The squash tournaments have been going 40 years. It’s probably the longest standing junior program in the country and if not the biggest, one of the biggest.”
The Heights Casino was never actually a real casino. It began as a tony private club which had the first indoor tennis court in the country and has always specialized in racquet sports. The tennis nets can also be removed to make way for a grand ballroom which hosts exclusive social events including the Ihpetonga Ball and the Yuletide Ball.
It used to have very restrictive membership policies, but after it nearly went bankrupt in the 1950s the club relaxed its policies and lowered the dues and today it’s extremely healthy and hosts some of the biggest non-Junior Championship Tour (JCT) squash tournaments in the country.
Many of the players that participate in these tournaments are high school kids from right here in Brooklyn. Most of the students either go to St. Ann’s on Pierrepont Street or Packer Collegiate Institute on Joralemon Street and the train in the club’s “accelerated program”.
Members of that program practice at least six, usually seven, times a week. It’s grueling not only physically, but the kids at this level are competing for scholarships at Ivy League schools and some of the top universities in the country. So not only do they have to find the time to practice six or seven days a week, but they have to keep their grades up or forget competing for the scholarships.
“They all seem to be very good at managing their time,” Elriani said. “They realize the grades are the most important thing. Luckily, most of them live within a few blocks from here so it’s easier to find time. A lot of these good colleges, even if you have good squash skills, you still need the SAT scores. One doesn’t come without the other and we’re fully aware of that.”
For high school squash players, this is the highest level program in the area and the student-athletes are aware and usually have no issues with motivation. One student-athlete, Andrew Douglas, is not yet in the program, but has already transferred to Packer and regularly plays and practices there. He explained that he’s extremely determined to join the club because,”it’s undoubtedly the best program in the city.”
For those lucky enough to be members of the club already, they are using it as a springboard. The accelerated program helps get them into the top tournaments in the country which get them noticed by college coaches. Even if they don’t expect to continue playing squash at a high level in college, they know that it looks better on applications. Many also use it to get into a slightly better school than they otherwise would have.
“You have to be smart to play squash because a lot of us are looking at trying to get scholarships from Ivy League and other competitive schools,” 16-year-old Lucy Martin explained. “It works the other way though sometimes too where squash can help you get into a school that you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten into. ”
The best thing for many of the club’s members, even the more casual players, is just having a good place to play that’s nearby. Because squash is not as popular as other sports, players generally have to travel very far, often hours away, to compete in even low-level tournaments. Having the Heights Casino in their backyard, hosting high-level tournaments and providing top-notch instruction, has not gone unnoticed.
“It’s great having these courts so close to home,” 17-year-old Gabriel Bassil said. “That’s why you see so many good squash players coming from Brooklyn. I love the Baird E. Haney too. It’s one of my favorite tournaments. I get to stay at home and I don’t have to travel hours to get to the tournament. It’s my own environment. It’s fun.”