SquashWise helps students think outside the box

SquashWise helps Baltimore City students think outside the box.

The students of SquashWise have spent years dispelling the myth that they mindlessly bounce a ball against a wall for hours or are interacting with a fruit. They've attempted to describe the little-known sport in universal terms such as "tennis in a box." Some simply say "Google it."

But really to explain their journeys through SquashWise, students say, is to explore how stepping onto a 21-by-32-foot court has opened up a new world to them.

Members of the first class of the Baltimore youth-development program graduated this month, after spending their middle- and high-school careers in the intensive mentoring and tutoring program that has also afforded them athletic and social opportunities through access to the historically exclusive sport.

The program, which for seven years has been recruiting city middle-schoolers and supporting them through high school, has the goal of 100 percent high-school graduation rate and college access.

The five seniors who graduated this year are all slated to attend college in the fall. Among them, they had 18 college acceptances and $480,000 in scholarships and financial aid offers.

Nytiece Powell, 17, who joined the program in eighth grade, graduated from Polytechnic Institute and will attend Frostburg State University. He credits joining SquashWise with everything from getting him transferred to a more rigorous high school to easing his anxiety about attending college after he got to stay on several campuses for squash tournaments.

"It's like a head start in a way, us having access to stuff that other kids don't, like the tutors and traveling," he said. "As far as the squash part, I don't know — I just be in there swinging."

"In there swinging" is how most students start the program, but they finish with much more precision. Powell's assessment, for example, was a modest one since he recently beat best-selling author Wes Moore in a public challenge.

Team members have also won a number of national awards in tournaments, and have become accomplished at the racquet sport, which consists of smacking a small, hollow rubber ball in a four-walled court.

But one of SquashWise's biggest draws, its members and staff say, is that it doesn't target the best athletes or the highest academic performers. The goal is for students to reach their full potential in both.

"You don't have to be good, you just have to try," said Eryn Rich, 17, who graduated from Poly and will head to McDaniel College in the fall.

SquashWise has recruited its 60 members from Baltimore public middle schools where 75 percent of students qualify for free lunch, and students are not screened for athletic or academic ability to be accepted.

It largely draws students who are seeking something new, a more flexible work-play balance or a chance to achieve personal goals.

Tayler St. Clair, 18, a recent graduate of Poly who is also heading to Frostburg, joined because she wanted to travel. For her to attend the first tournament, however, she needed special practices to be good enough to compete.

St. Clair said she preferred the sport to running track because of the camaraderie she found in SquashWise.

Now, she has traveled to cities such as Denver, Philadelphia and Boston, and has enjoyed feeling like part of a team.

"Since we're an actual program rather than an actual sports team, we spend more time together so the bond is stronger," she said.

Abby Markoe, who co-founded SquashWise in 2007, said she started the program in Baltimore with the belief that the sport could make a difference in the lives of city students.

Baltimore is one of 20 urban squash programs in the country offering minority, first-generation college-going students access to a sport that has largely been dominated by the upper to middle class in the United States.

Students make it through "tryouts" by demonstrating eagerness, a great attitude, a willingness to try something new and commitment to sticking it out.

These are the attributes that are going to make them successful in a sport that requires discipline and perseverance, said Markoe, who played squash growing up outside Princeton, N.J.

"Their experience here, playing a nontraditional sport and playing it for so long, shows so many things about them," Markoe said. "Colleges pay attention to that idea — their dedication, the fact that they're willing to try new things and think outside the box."

The program allows students to break down personal and societal barriers, through access and opportunity, in Baltimore and beyond.

Baltimore students have stepped inside courts with well-trained private school students and onto college campuses that they might never have visited. They travel around the country to tournaments, where they meet new opponents and leave with friends.

"It's not this elitist, white sport that you can only access at a country club anymore, and that's because of programs like ours," Markoe said. "We're bringing diversity to the court that didn't exist before."

Darian Rich, 17, SquashWise's No.1 ranked player, is a staple at Meadow Mill Athletic Club, the program's headquarters, and is in demand by club members looking for a game.

Rich joined SquashWise in middle school when his grades were low and, he said, the only effort he put into school was going every day. Now he goes to Meadow Mill every day, he said, "for constant improvement."

He said that although he doesn't share the same background as many of his opponents, only one thing matters when they're on the court: winning.

"We're all are there for the same reason," said the recent Poly graduate who will attend Community College of Baltimore County next year and work part time as a coach for SquashWise. "And that's to play the sport."

But an observation of a typical day at SquashWise shows that at the end of the day, it's about more than a sport.

In a small room tucked down a hallway in Meadow Mill, the program's ninth-graders poured over computers and books. With their tutors from the Johns Hopkins University nearby, students were cranking out essays and studying for upcoming exams as the end of the school year drew near.

Squash practice would come later, but many spoke about how their academic success had to come first.

Bruce Jordan, a ninth-grader at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, also plays football. But unlike that team sport, SquashWise has provided him with his own time to develop a game plan to tackle challenges.

For example, in the small room at Meadow Mill, during middle school he would retreat and read books to help him work through his stutter.

"It's good to work in teams," the 15-year-old said without a stumble. "But you also have to be able to get better by yourself."

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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