Will Cembalest has been a serious squash player since age 13. He plays for his school’s team; he plays outside of school; he has elite private coaches and plays in the biggest tournaments. But despite his usually-immersed life of Squash, he found that taking a four-month break from the sport has improved him as a player.
Cembalest took four months off last spring when he went to the Bahamas for a marine biology program through his high school, Poly Prep. The program had a heavy emphasis on fitness and culminated with a half marathon. He said training for the half marathon was the key in improving his focus on the court.
“I think that taking time off really helped me a lot because it improved my fitness and helped me become mentally tougher,” Cembalest said. “Training for that half marathon is hard work not only physically, but mentally as well. Ultimately, I feel that it’s the biggest reason why I’m playing so well right now.”
Cembalest proved he is at the top of his game after winning Brooklyn’s Baird E. Haney Junior Gold Championship for the first time ever, beating Krish Bhavnani 3-1 (12-10, 5-11, 11-3, 11-7) at the boys under-17 singles bracket. He was one of four Brooklyn kids, including Tiber Worth, Lucy Martin and Tobey Surratt, to win their respective brackets at the tournament, which took place this past weekend.
“This is a big weekend for the kids from Brooklyn,” said Laurent Elriani, one of the coaches of the accelerated squash program at the Heights Casino. “It’s our tournament, so there are bragging rights at stake. It attracts people from all over the country — from Ohio, from Michigan and all over. To have four kids from Brooklyn winning it is a big deal.”
Elriani was especially impressed with Martin’s 3-2 (11-4, 6-11, 11-6, 11-13, 12-10) win in the under-19 bracket, as she has never won the Baird E. Haney tournament. She had to go up against the No. 1 overall player — Samantha Chai of Norwell, Mass. — to win.
“She just aged up this month, which usually means that she’s at a disadvantage, and she beat a player who is in the top 12 in the country — that’s huge,” Elriani said. “She has made the finals many times, but I’m not sure that she has ever won a tournament like this before. She’s obviously at the top of her game right now.”
Worth beat Bhavnani 3-0 (11-7, 11-4, 11-4) just a day after he had a grueling semifinal match that he nearly blew.
“I was having an easy tournament up until that semifinal match, and I was extremely tired after playing that one…I wasn’t sure how I was going to do today,” Worth admitted. “I just tried to be in control and volley as much as I could, and it worked very well. I was sort of surprised at how easy it was.”
Surratt was the favorite to win the boys under-11 bracket and swept his way through the tournament (winning 11-8, 11-2 and 11-4 in the finals) without losing a single game. Surratt is only 10 years old.
“This was obviously Tobey’s tournament to win, but it’s not easy being that No. 1 seed and having all of that pressure on you,” Elriani said. “It’s also hard for kids that young to be consistent. Inconsistency is normal at that age. A lot of times you will see a kid go up 8-3 and still lose the game. For him to overcome that pressure and be so consistent is amazing.”
Some of Brooklyn’s other top performers included Jane Pincus, girls under-17 bracket; Sean Kiernan, third in boys under-11; and Dylan Kelleher, girls under-11 — all of whom came in third place in their respective brackets. Charles Culhane came in fourth in the boys under-17 bracket.
Other bracket winners include: R. Cody Cortes from Cambridge, Mass., who won boys under-19 bracket; Joey Raskin Lantos from Cambridge, who won boys under-13; Marina Stefanoni from Darien, Conn., who won girls under-17, Olivia Robinson from Manhattan, who won girls under-15; Caroline Pellegrino from New Canaan, Conn., who won girls under-13; and Alysa Ali from Watchung, N.J., who won girls under-11.