By BOB YORK –
Mike Silipo landed the kind of recruit this season that any high school football coach in the country would covet. The kid’s got good hands… quick feet … and an uncanny ability to get to the ball. Sam Khalifa will never be known as one of coach Silipo’s Legends of the Fall, however. Football is not his sport – squash is. And that’s just fine with the Big Green football mentor. Silipo spends his winters tutoring prep school wall bangers, and has been for nearly three decades now. “And this kid’s got to be one of the best at his age level that I’ve ever seen,” said Silipo, “much less coached.”
Khalifa better be one of the best Silipo has ever seen or coached. He’s the top ranked Under-17 player in the world, so it goes without saying he was the top seed on Silipo’s lineup card. You probably wouldn’t be overly shocked, either, to find out that he went undefeated this winter (15-0) and captured the No. 1 Bracket during the New England Prep School Athletic Conference Division I Boys Squash Tournament, which was hosted at Deerfield’s Dewey Squash Center.
With Khalifa leading the way, the Big Green rolled to an 11-2 regular season record and 15-3 overall showing before earning a bronze medal at the championship meet. Brunswick School won the A crown with 109 points, while Belmont Hill finished a single point behind at 108. The Big Green, meanwhile, closed out with 90 points.
“We went into the tourney as the third seed,” said Silipo, “so I guess you can say we finished right where we were suppose to … but we also knew the battle to finish third would be wide open among Deerfield, Hotchkiss, Milton and Taft.”
The Big Green mentor knew through previous meetings that his crew had a slight advantage in its bid for the final slot on the medals podium, having bested Hotchkiss (5-2) and Taft (6-1) but falling to Milton (5-2). So, a little déjà vu all over again certainly wouldn’t hurt their chances – and it didn’t.
In the end, Deerfield earned the third and final medal, as the race for fourth place proved more highly contested. Trailing Deerfield’s 90 points were Hotchkiss with 82, Milton with 81 and Taft with 73. And the ownership of that bronze medal was never really in doubt. Through the first four matches, Deerfield accumulated 50 points, while Milton had 47, Hotchkiss 44 and Taft 43. Over the final three, meanwhile, the Big Green continued to acquire points, posting 40, while Hotchkiss netted 38 and Milton and Taft closed with 34 and 30 respectively.
“We knew if we played the way we’re capable of, we’d be in pretty good shape,” said Silipo, whose club finished the season with an 8-2 record against teams in the Class A register And, just to show how far the Big Green has come since competing on the B level just two years ago, it owned a 3-0 showing this winter against team in that bracket, including victories over No. 3 St. Paul’s, No. 4 Groton and No. 8 Avon Old Farms.
Khalifa’s appearance obviously made the Big Green a much better team, but it was a team that would have likely held its own throughout much of a highly competitive Class A schedule. That optimism had to do with the fact that Silipo welcomed back his top seven players that had led Deerfield to a 10-10 record and a 10th-place at the New England tournament last winter. The only difference was that this year, everyone moved down a peg or two to allow the new guy do his thing.
With familiar faces in brand new places, two-time captain Ted Henderson (’13), who was the recipient of this year’s Squash Racquets Trophy, posted a 9-6 record on the season as the team’s second seed and wound up 10th at the New England championships. Tripp Kaelin (’14), the third seed, went 13-3 during regular season and finished fourth in the New England fray. Cam Dewey (’14) was this winter’s fourth seed, where he rang up a 12-3 showing and posted a sixth-place finish.
The five guy was Connor Henderson (’15), who went 8-7 before finishing sixth at the New Englands. The sixth spot, meanwhile, belonged to Dan Blohm (’13), who enjoyed a successful season by rolling up a 13-2 record and earned a bronze medal at the championships, while Jamie Kjorlien (’15) was 8-2 and landed a silver medal in postseason action. Tad Huffard (’15), who also saw some playing time this winter, took advantage of it by registering a 10-3 record.
The third seed Deerfield owned heading into this winter’s championship was well earned. During its 11 league victories, the Big Green rarely gave its opponents time to take off their warm-up jackets before they were tossing in the towel. Four of Deerfield’s wins came via 7-0 drubbings, while five other opponents were dragged into the fast lane as well, succumbing by 6-1 scores.
And the best may be yet to come, as Silipo will be losing just three members of this year’s team to graduation and just two of his top eight players, “so we’re hoping we can put ourselves in position to have another strong showing next season and hopefully we will be able to improve on our third-place finish come tournament time.”
Things are certainly looking rosy for the Green. It will have the defending Class A New England champion and the premier player in all of New England coming out of its corner next season. Ironically, however, there’s one place Khalifa would be hard pressed for bragging rights to being No. 1. And that would be in Cairo, Egypt. Back home, there’s good chance he’s No. 2 in the family’s pecking order.
Sam’s older brother Amr, is the top rated Under 19 player in the world. And the freshman at St. Lawrence University recently capped off an undefeated 15-0 season by strutting his stuff through the tournament field to capture the College Men’s Squash Association Tournament championship.
He proved that earning the title was no fluke, either, as he battled back from a two-game deficit to knock off the defending champion in the semifinals. Then bested this year’s top seed, a senior from Princeton University, by a 3-0 count.
“He’s my coach,” said Khalifa of his older brother, Amr. “Growing up, we spent a great deal of time together. He was always the teacher and I was always the student.”
As for playing against each other, that part of the learning curve ended early on, because, as Khalifa put it, “some of our matches had a tendency to get rather intense.” And so, this sibling rivalry has remained on the coach-player level, so both brothers can focus that intensity on opponents outside the family.
“We’re both scheduled to take part in the World Open this summer in Poland,” said Khalifa. “Due to our age difference, we won’t face each other this year, but next year, we could … and that could be fun.”