The first thing to know about the game of squash is the ball doesn’t bounce all that high.
Be prepared to run or, better yet, send your opponent chasing and chasing into the four corners of the indoor court.
Persistence is key, and for the school kids competing in a program called Beyond Walls — operating out of the University of Minnesota’s Recreation and Wellness Center — organizers are looking for grit, too.
Beyond Walls is part of a national movement that is taking squash from the private schools and elite universities and introducing it to inner-city students. But the game is just part of it. Academic achievement and character development are central elements, too, with the goal being to open kids to higher-ed and other opportunities, said Jazmin Danielson, the nonprofit’s executive director.
This weekend, 10 students are competing in a regional tournament on the South Side of Chicago. That event is being hosted by MetroSquash, a partner in the New York-based Squash and Education Alliance. In March, the students are off to Yale University.
Campuses are toured and connections made.
Recently, Jesús Viveros a 2017 Beyond Walls graduate now studying sociology at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, squared off in a tournament match with Chris Hilger, president and CEO of Securian Financial, a tourney sponsor and Beyond Walls supporter.
“Truly inspirational,” Danielson said of the match.
Viveros went to Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul, one of two schools — Venture Academy charter school in Minneapolis being the other — that sends middle- and high-school students to the after-school Beyond Walls program. He now is a part-time coach and instructor at Beyond Walls.
There, too, is his brother, Gilberto Viveros, a high school senior, who along with friend and fellow St. Paul East Sider, Eduardo Gomez, is one of Beyond Walls’ top players. It wasn’t until a visitor sat down with Gilberto and Gomez that he realized that Gilberto was the brother of the coach to whom he had been introduced just a few minutes earlier.
“That’s how he good he is,” Gomez said of Jesús and his mentoring role.
“Kind of,” Gilberto said.
Turns out the brothers have a rivalry going.
To the streets
The Squash and Education Alliance is rooted in a graduate-student term paper written by former squash professional Greg Zaff titled in part, “Bringing Squash Down From the Ivory Tower.” In 1995, Zaff launched a program, SquashBusters, in Boston, described by the alliance as the first to combine squash with academic tutoring, mentoring and community service activities.
Beyond Walls began in 2011, and after months of fundraising and organizing, welcomed its first Washington Technology Magnet students in 2013. A pioneer member was Xatziri Viveros, a cousin of the Viveros brothers.
Typically, students go to the U for an average of nine hours per week and divide their time between squash and academic activities. The latter includes lessons in leadership and character development created by Beyond Walls, as well as homework that students often will tend to with the help of student mentors from the U.
Danielson said the ideal scenario is to have students participate from sixth through 12th grade, which she said requires parental buy-in and unwavering commitment by students to the program’s three cornerstones: “attitude, attendance and effort.”
In 2017-18, the annual retention rate at Beyond Walls was 71 percent, which placed it 17th among the 18 programs providing that information in an alliance member survey. But it fared better when it came to the percentage of students who stick with the program from the time they make the team through high school graduation — at 59 percent.
Todd Iliff, founder and president of Boast Squash in Eden Prairie, sees Beyond Walls as a welcome addition to what he describes as successful efforts to grow the game in Minnesota. His club opened in October 2017 and now has more than 100 members. A women’s squash day event he hosted on behalf of the Minnesota Squash Association in 2018 drew more than 50 participants — the third highest turnout in the nation, he said.
Iliff said people who try the game fall into two categories: those who think of it as “OK” and those who love it and feel there’s something wrong if they’re not on the court. He puts Gomez and the Viveros brothers in the latter category.
“If there’s a court available, they’ll play. I know those guys,” he said.
Washington Technology is sold on Beyond Walls and the opportunities it’s given its students.
“An incredible program,” Principal Mike McCollor said.
On Wednesday, Gomez and Gilberto Viveros waited to take the court at Beyond Walls as squash manager Vinh Chung led middle school students in post-workout cheers.
Soon, they were scrimmaging, and Jesús Viveros was observing. Both, he said, should take more time before they serve.
Gomez plans to study kinesiology in college and sees himself as “the last shot” in his family to deliver on his mother’s wishes for a child with a postsecondary degree. He is working on “staying in control of the court,” he said. The younger Viveros, who plans to go to Augsburg and eventually become a veterinarian, is working more on controlling the ball, he said.
Jesús and Gilberto currently are 2-2 in matches against one another, with a tiebreaker planned later this year.
Gilberto, as it turns out, defeated the program’s No. 1 player at the end of the previous school year and is superstitious, Jesús said. The elder Viveros, on the other hand, captured the last two matches the brothers played and has momentum on his side.