Step into the Sipprelle Field House on a winter weekday afternoon and you’ll find a swarm of squash players amassed in the hallways by the Durkin Fleischer Squash Center. The athletes are chatty and bubbly and their conversation simmers as their coach, Doug Whittaker, steps in front of them with an easy smile.
“They are a captive audience and are so receptive to what I’m saying,” says Whittaker. “That, to me, is gold.”
The attention is well-deserved for someone who has won at the highest levels of the sport and coached some of the best talent in the country. After 24 years as the Director of Squash at Germantown Cricket Club, Whittaker now spends his afternoons standing in front of 60 St. Andrew’s students whose squash skill levels span the entire scope of playing ability. He couldn’t be more enthralled by the opportunity.
“I think it’s inclusion, not exclusion, when you are developing players and building a program,” explains Whittaker. “Everybody knows where the line is between varsity, JV and the thirds team, but you don’t have to say it. We work in a group of 64 players. You just include everybody, and everybody rises up.”
Managing that large a group takes extensive planning, clear communication, and a lot of help. The practices start with introducing a new skill—serving, backhand drives, boast shots, cross-court forehand volley dead nick kills (Whittaker’s favorite)—then a demonstration and questions before players break up into groups across the nine courts at the Durkin Fleischer Squash Center. The four additional courts added to the facility in 2011 have made a significant impact on the quality of practices and player development, considering the size of the team. It’s something Whittaker embraces as he fosters the squash culture at St. Andrew’s.
“If you pull it off, the lesser, more developing players want to be better because they are exposed to that [higher level of skill],” explains the Toronto-native. “Then, you have a development system. Now, you can become an incredibly strong program because you build from within.”
“I’m not joking, I saw improvement in one day [of practice],” Whittaker continued. “Usually, that takes weeks and these kids did it immediately.”
When Whittaker talks about development, you can hear the excitement in his voice. At St. Andrew’s, he can focus on what he does best: coaching. That’s not always the case for squash coaches, who oftentimes assume both coach and player roles in traditional one-on-one training sessions. In this setting, Whittaker can leave the racket at home and instead, bring his notepad to fill with observations.
None of this would be possible without the supporting staff of St. Andrew’s faculty members Eric Finch and Adam Bitzer, and current parent Will Simonds P’24, who makes a long trek once a week from Virginia and sleeps in faculty guest rooms around campus. An All-American in squash at Stony Brook University, Simonds has coached racket sports for nearly two decades, including as the head court-tennis professional at the Racquet and Tennis Club in New York. He knows how to manage and coach a court with multiple players on it, something that thrills Whittaker. From coaching to auditing Melinda Tower’s AS World at War class, Simonds returns the joy he’s received from the community in every way he can.
“It’s cliche and cheesy, but it’s true,” says Simonds. “The energy here is different from any other place I’ve been.”
The scope of experience provided to athletes by Simonds and Whittaker is tremendous. Whittaker’s playing days took him overseas with Team Canada and included a pair of individual Canadian championships as a junior and professional player. He has coached multiple junior and professional national champions and produced a bevy of players that were ranked #1 nationally. But he is not keen on telling you that—even when asked. He’d rather talk about the players, their receptiveness, and how invaluable that is in his line of work.
“It’s really about the coach finding the thing that makes the player better,” says Whittaker.
There are a handful of tri-meets for St. Andrew’s varsity and JV players to showcase their talents and improvements this winter. Saturdays with meets feature 5:30 a.m. alarms and long van rides to events that last the full day. Then, it’s back to work during the week, with practice sandwiched in between sprints sessions. Student-athletes leave for dinner in darkness, but you can still spot the smiles when they pass Whittaker and Simonds in the Dining Hall.
“I can’t believe they are all interacting with each other like this,” explains Whittaker. “It’s just a special place.”
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