HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – The sport was once the exclusive preserve of the Ivy League.

But for the past decade, Trinity College has towered over the likes of Harvard and Princeton in college squash, winning its last 179 matches and nine consecutive national titles. It rules the game as UCLA once did in basketball and along the way helped change the face of the sport in the United States.

“It’s crazy, right?” Trinity coach Paul Assaiante said. “Until 12 years ago, no non-Ivy League school had ever won the intercollegiate championships.”

Trinity’s domination dates to 1993, when New England’s prep schools voted to switch from the American version of squash to the international version of the game, which is played with a softer ball on a larger court. U.S. colleges followed suit the following year.

Assaiante sensed an opportunity and told his college president that the best squash is not being played in the United States. With the school’s blessing, Assaiante, then coach of the U.S. national team, took his recruiting global. The team’s last loss came against Harvard in the 1998 College Squash Association finals.

“Paul saw very clearly that was the way to go, and since then it has just completely opened up the game of squash,” Brown coach Stuart leGassick said.

“It’s kind of neat having us Ivys scattered a bit. It’s done the game of collegiate squash a world of good.”

Trinity began winning, and word spread in the international squash community. Assaiante said much of his recruiting is now done by former and current players who return home and tell the top juniors about their experience at Trinity.

The small liberal arts school in Hartford has a roster that includes players from the U.S., Pakistan, Jamaica, Sweden, Colombia, Malaysia, India and Zimbabwe.

The team has no recruiting budget and does not offer scholarships. Players get financial aid based on need.

Neil Robertson, a senior co-captain, is from Zimbabwe. He says Trinity offers prospective players the chance to go to school in the United States and face top squash competition at excellent facilities without having to get into a Harvard, Yale or Princeton.

“It sounded perfect,” he said. “You get to play squash at a really high level and the academics are good as well. And I think the combination of the two here, as opposed to the really high concentration on academics at the other three, this was a nicer balance for me.”

Assaiante has heard criticism from those who say he’s stocking his team with ringers and taking spots from Americans.

But he insists all his players are students first and must meet academic standards and qualify for any financial aid.

“Different colleges have different thresholds,” Princeton coach Bob Callahan said. “Trinity has a different threshold than Princeton, but that’s not Paul’s fault.”

Callahan said he and others in the squash world are following Assaiante’s example. Five of Princeton’s top six players are now from overseas, he said.

“Our mandate is to go out and recruit the best student-athletes that we can,” he said. “They don’t say recruit the best American student athletes, they say recruit the best student athletes that meet our admissions standards.”

As a result of the better competition, he said, the quality of American squash is improving. And the sport is catching on. Club programs have sprouted at colleges across the nation.

There will be 54 schools coming to the national championships this month at Harvard, including North Carolina, Southern California and Washington, schools not usually associated with college squash.

Trinity’s winning streak is thought to be the nation’s longest in any college sport.

The Bantams overpowered No. 2 Princeton last week before 1,000 supporters at its Kenner Squash Center. Trinity then hosted and won the New England Small College Championships.

Trinity’s players are attracted by the school’s squash culture. Squash is to Trinity students what football is to kids at Ohio State. Players, Assaiante said, are “little rock stars” on campus.

A photo of Gustav Detter, a junior who came to Trinity from Sweden, hangs in the college president’s office. It shows him dropping to his knees after saving eight match points during the deciding game of a 2006 match with Princeton, the equivalent of coming back from being down 0-5, love-40 in the final set at Wimbledon.

“I feel like the atmosphere here, you can’t compare it to the atmosphere at a Princeton or another school,” Detter said. “It’s really a family here. Coach makes everyone become a group.”

Garrett Hess, a freshman from Cleveland, came to the Princeton match with friends and says the social calendar revolves around squash.

“It’s something to have pride in as a D-III school,” he said. “We’re so small that it’s good to see that we have one team that you can talk to any kid anywhere and say, ‘We have the best squash team in the country.”‘

AP-ES-02-04-08 1752EST

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