Squashing the competition

Photo of Anthony E. Parelli

DARIEN — It’s no secret that at Darien High School, lacrosse and football reign supreme. But amongst the graduates in the 2017 class, stands a lesser known athlete with world-class ability.

Harrison Gill is that athlete, and squash is his sport.

Gill, who plays out of Sportsplex in Stamford, recently competed in his second World Junior Championships, finishing in the Top-20.

“Playing at the World Junior Championships is an amazing experience because you’re exposed to different styles of play, different cultures of people and you really get to meet people from around the globe,” Gill said. “Every continent is competing. You’re really exposed to world-class level squash.

Squash doesn’t only give Gill a workout on the court, but has exhausted his passport as well. This year’s WJC were played in New Zealand, last year was Poland and Gill has also traveled to places like Germany, the Netherlands, Canada and England.

“I’ve been really all over the world,” Gill said. “Met lots of new people and been exposed to some great squash. Specifically this year it was such a great experience going to New Zealand; it was a wonderful tournament, extremely well organized, they did a beautiful job with it, it’s a beautiful country and I had a really good time there.”

While squash is still a relatively niche sport in America, the suburbs of New York have become a hot-bed for the sport, and Gill regards Sportsplex as one of the premier facilities in the country.

“I’ve been playing at Sportsplex because I feel it’s the best program in the nation,” Gill said. “Kumail (Mehmood) and his staff are phenomenal coaches throughout all ages; some coaches are very strong with pro-level players and some are strong with beginners but at Sportsplex they’re equipped to coach all levels extremely well.”

That’s part of the reason that, while squash is an individual sport, it feels more like a team game in Stamford.

“It’s a great environment to play,” Gill said. “We have a pretty big program, I’d say 20-30 juniors who play at the club and it’s like a team dynamic because everyone knows each other and gets along really well. We’re always there chatting and hanging out, I feel like everyone looks forward to coming to Sportsplex, they can improve their squash game but also have a good time.”

Gill started playing at a young age, learning the game from his father, who is of English decent. Once he became competitive, Mehmood took Gill under his wing—just as he did with Gills three older siblings—and he has remained there for the past decade.

“He has the most drive and talent,” Mehmood said of what sets Gill apart. “But more than the talent I think hard work is important and proper guidance. From a young age he was passionate and worked hard, you just had to tell him once and he did it. In a couple years training with me he won his first nationals and then every division he was stronger.”

Under the tutelage of Mehmood, Gill won both the 15U and 17U national titles and made the National Team in both tries at a 19U player.

“It becomes harder as they get older,” Mehmood said. “For example, in 11U the most important shots are kids that can serve really well and are quicker to the front and are able to drop well. When they get 13U they should be fitter and be able to move and do all those things and they get to 15U and endurance starts coming in and in each of these ages technique is very important. If they have good technique they can do a lot on the court, the ones that go to the National Team all have beautiful technique.”

Gill will be taking that technique to Yale University in the fall, where he will continue his career as a member of the school’s team.

It’s unique, Gill said, of the brotherhood of squash players nationally, as well as around the globe.

“Even though there’s not really a huge culture, everyone seems to share so much in common no matter where we’re from, and everyone is extremely sociable and everyone gets integrated really quickly because we’re in the same hotel and same venue,” Gill said. “It’s not a cutthroat atmosphere, everyone is conversing and chatting around with other people, it’s really a lasting bond…all of the top US juniors head off to college to play squash, and a lot of juniors worldwide that go play at universities. It’s great, some of us are on the same teams and you play some of the other teams. Someone I met this year goes to George Washington and we’re going to meet again come November so it’ll be interesting and it’s very fun.”

Obviously, what Gill has accomplished on the court speaks for itself, but his game trancends just wins and losses.

“He’s made my job easy, and he’s made a lot of peoples jobs easy by putting in so much effort,” Mehmood said. “He changed the game in US squash, the players love to watch his mannerisms and technique and how he’s strong and solid.”

That effort, ability and demeanor are part of the reason why the relationship between Mehmood and Gill has developed into far more than just coach and player.

“He’s a friend, he’s like a son, he’s a partner,” Mehmood said. “It’s a very good relationship, we’re very close. With every kid its similar, but with Harrison it’s different, whenever he loses you feel like you lost and when he wins you feel like you won.”

Luckily for Mehmood, it’s been far more of the latter.

aparelli@bcnnew.com @reportedbytheAP