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Squash rivals on the court, good friends off

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If not for Gilman senior Michael East, Aria Fazelimanesh would have had great difficulty landing at what he considered the perfect school for him: Friends.

The two met at a national squash junior tournament in September of 2010 at Harvard University and immediately struck up a friendship.

Fazelimanesh lived in San Jose, Calif., at the time, but they stayed in touch.

"He mentioned there was no one to play in California," East said. "He was looking for a training partner. He said, 'I'm thinking about moving to Maryland. You think you could help me out, finding somewhere to live?'"

East and his family were more than glad to help out any way they could. Fazelimanesh, a native of Iran, enrolled at Friends in the fall of 2011.

And he couldn't he happier with how things have worked out. His squash game improved and he will play on a scholarship in the fall at the University of Rochester.

"Friends School was a destiny for me," said Fazelimanesh, now a senior. "When I came to Baltimore, I wasn't very comfortable. Friends helped me so I could get recruited. It was the only school that could help me improve my English and take classes with other American students."

Fazelimanesh worked hard with East, a Lutherville resident who will play squash at Princeton University this fall, to help improve his game.

They have worked out together at Bare Hills Racquet and Fitness Club for 16 months.

"When I started out, I was beating him," East explained. "We trained three or four times a week. We are pretty good friends. I am probably closer to him or as close to him as some of my Gilman teammates."

Staying sharply focused on squash has helped Fazelimanesh's transition to life in Baltimore. He's worked hard to improve his English while adjusting to living apart from his immediate family members.

He lives in Cross Keys Village with his mother, Fariba. His father, Ali, is an orthopedic surgeon in Iran, and his sister, Shima, attends graduate school at California State University, Northridge.

"It feels like home here," said Fazelimanesh, who plans to be a pre-med major. "I haven't been overwhelmed. My friends and community have helped me adjust."

Friends coach Lucky Odeh feels blessed to have a player of Fazelimanesh's caliber, considering the teen owns a No. 1 national ranking in 2011 in the Under-17 division by the sport's governing body, U.S. Squash.

"I would say he is one of those once-in-a-lifetime players," Odeh said. "He has all the tools. Physically, he is so gifted. He just needed to work a little harder, which he did. He has great racquet skills. When I got him, he was already at the top. I just added more strategy to his game."

Fazelimanesh showed off his skills in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association individual championships at Meadow Mill Athletic Club on Feb. 21.

Of course, he played East for the No. 1 singles championship.

Fazelimanesh beat East for the second straight year in the final, rallying from an 0-2 deficit to edge his friend, 6-11, 8-11, 11-5, 11-1, 11-4.

"I wasn't going to go down early," East said. "I came out hot and played the best squash I could. Aria just stayed tough. He outplayed me. It's tough when you are constantly competing with someone and, off the court, you are friends."

It's not the last time the two figure to play each other.

"We talked a lot during the college (recruiting) process and I am sure we will play each other in college," East said. "I am sure we will be in touch a couple of times a week."

Fazelimanesh wasn't the only Friends MIAA champion.

Will Rogers beat Gilman's Wilson Caspari at No. 5, 11-2, 11-8, 11-6 while Quaker teammate Henry Askew topped Josh Park, 12-10, 11-7, 8-11, 11-6, in the No. 7 slot.

Gilman, which hammered Friends, 6-1, for the team title Feb. 15, also prevailed in the other four individual finals. Davis Owen (No. 2) swept Boys' Latins' Connor Ward, 14-12, 11-2, 11-6, Grant Lounsbury (No. 3) outlasted Friends' Griffin Bonner, 11-6, 8-11, 11-2, 11-4, Henry Schmidt (No. 4) beat Grant Adams, of Boys' Latin, 11-9, 11-9, 11-9 and Alex Witherspoon (No. 6) upended BL's Drew Miller, 11-5, 11-4, 11-8.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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