By Kyle Stackpole
Craig Dawson loved his time at the Naval Academy.
As a member of the tennis team and an All-American squash player, Dawson got to play sports every day after school from 1970-73. He met his friends while living in Bancroft Hall, the largest single dormitory in the world. His roommate remains his best friend more than 40 years later.
When the athletic department offered him the head coaching job of the Navy squash team in the spring of 2000, Dawson was able to fulfill a lifelong dream of coaching the team he once had so much success with.
During his coaching tenure, Dawson has led the program to prominence. Navy's season ended with a 14th-place finish at the College Squash Association team championships Feb. 26-28, but the Midshipmen finished the year with 20 or more wins for the 10th time in school history, eight of which have come under its current coach.
"[Dawson] always tells us, ‘Prepare, play, perform,'" junior Randy Beck said. "That's what he always tells us, so you kind of buy into it, and we all push each other to try to get better and put in the work, put in the time, and it ends up doing pretty well for us."
Beck (16-10) first heard about the Navy squash program in his early teens from Nils Mattsson, a family friend who was a captain and an All-American squash player for the Midshipmen before graduating in 2010. He heard about Mattsson's personal achievements as well as the success of his team, which finished 26-8 in 2010.
The year after Mattsson graduated, Beck's brother, Hunter, joined the squash program, eventually becoming team captain as a senior in 2013-14. Both players told Beck about the opportunities outside of squash, too. During the summer, students have the chance to go on a fleet cruise or join an aviation squad to get a feel of what they might be involved in after graduation.
"It's different stuff you get to do during the summer that's pretty interesting," Beck said. "It's a different route but definitely seemed like a cool choice, cool to have that type of team to be on."
Dawson uses a similar pitch on the recruiting trail, telling recruits the experience playing squash at Navy is "college with a twist." He frequently recruits athletes from prep schools in the Northeast but added that many of these kids are looking to play at Ivy League programs. It's his job to sell Navy's uniqueness.
"You challenge them," Dawson said. "'Do you want to do something different in college?' It doesn't always work, but we've had some good success recruiting and have gotten some nice players."
Dawson has a 70.4 winning percentage during his 16 years at the helm of the program, and his teams' fitness levels, according to the players, is a significant reason why.
Senior captain Bill Kacergis (14-11), the second of three brothers to play squash at Navy, said the program's mantra is that it's going to be in better shape than any of the teams it plays. Dawson will have his players run stairs and do 300-yard sprints to prepare them for the short, intensive bursts they will endure during matches.
"One-second break while the other guy hits it, and then another five-step sprint and lunge," Kacergis said. "You're going hard for a short amount of time, and you might get that 10-second break between points, so it's just the repeatedly building up to top speed."
This training prepares Navy for the CSA team championships as well as the U.S. Intercollegiate Squash doubles championships, which are held every October.
After deciding to focus on this event five years ago, Navy has asserted its dominance, advancing to the finals four times and winning the title twice. Kacergis alone advanced to three straight championships during the final three years of his career.
Right now, though, Dawson is focused on the CSA individual championships. Sophomore Jack Harold and freshman Senen Ubina, the No. 1 and No. 2 players on the ladder, respectively, will represent Navy in Hanover, N.H., March 4-6.
"They can do well because they've played well all year," Dawson said. "There are no easy matches when you play one and two on the ladder, so if they can stay healthy, I think they can surprise some people."