It hadn't been long after Paul Assaiante's peculiar Wednesday night when he found himself sifting through his email and stopping at a particular message.
It was a number in the email that stuck with the coach hours after -- a number he now attempts to shrug off. But for more than 13 years, that number had grown and grown and grown and taken Assaiante's squash team, the Trinity College Bantams, with it.
"Other people counted it," Assaiante says. "I never liked to. I didn't come here to do that."
The count was 5,078 days.
Since Feb. 22, 1998, Assaiante's squash team at Trinity College in Connecticut had not lost a single match. That's 252 consecutive wins, 13 straight national championships. And the longest winning streak in the history of collegiate athletics.
But that was before Wednesday night.
Assaiante knows things like "The Streak" don’t last forever. He often wondered if the end would bring a certain sense of relief -- a metaphorical lifting of a 13-season, 5,078-day burden. They would celebrate, he thought.
But as Trinity's Swedish junior Johan Detter lost the eleventh and final point to Yale's John Roberts on Wednesday in New Haven, and The Streak had officially ended, Assaiante realized he had been lying to himself all along.
He really hated losing.
"The Streak" had for so long been a gift of publicity to the sport of squash, a sport desperately fighting its way through the Olympic process. The sport was rejected for both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, beat out by baseball, rugby and a sport boasting some guy named Tiger Woods. But things are still looking up for squash, and a lot of that has to do with Trinity.
When the streak began, Assaiante says he only remembers 30 teams taking part in the national championships. That number has since doubled. And with more teams in the fold, challengers began to emerge for Trinity. No longer were the Bantams "the only team at the dance," like they had been early on in The Streak. Matches became closer and closer.
"I always hoped that when it ended it would be because other schools came up to the bar," Assaiante says. "And it did. There are six teams in this country now that can win a national championship, and if that's our legacy, that’s pretty cool."
With more challengers threatening Trinity's streak, the wins had become more stressful, more tentative, and more unpleasant. After winning their 12th-straight national championship in 2010, then-Trinity senior Baset Chaudhry was criticized widely for very openly taunting his Yale opponent. Video of the bad sportsmanship spread, further fueling a fire between Yale and Trinity that existed through Wednesday’s match.
"There’s a bit of bad blood between the two," President of U.S. Squash Kevin Klipstein says.
The Streak continued. The Bantams could feel the target on their back get larger and larger. But Trinity still had the best players, thanks to a coach who recruited not only locally, but internationally.
"He was on the forefront of recruiting players from around the world," Klipstein says. "Kids from India showing up in shorts and sandals in January -- not even having a winter coat."
Year after year, Trinity continued to win.
Assaiante had paid as little attention as he could to "the elephant in the room" for as long as he could. But when people started jealously misbehaving, as he says, or even assuming the Bantams had cheated, he couldn't help but confront The Streak. In one fell swoop, Trinity had helped popularize the sport in America and also became one of its greatest antagonists.
A column in the Boston Globe had gone so far as to call Assaiante's program squash's "The Evil Empire."
"We’re a society that loves to celebrate our underdogs and are very happy for them to stay there in a year or so,” Assaiante says. "Then, we take great delight out of chipping them down. That, I always found disconcerting. But that's what comes with the territory.
"Break up the Yankees! That's just the nature of it."
The pressure had taken an obvious toll on his players. Classes of squash players came and went from Trinity, spending four full years on the team without feeling the pain of defeat. No one wanted to be the player responsible for ending The Streak.
So Assaiante focused his coaching on managing fear more than anything else. He even wrote a book about it -- "Run to the Roar: Coaching to Overcome Fear" -- citing himself on the front cover as the winningest coach in college sports history.
Since Wednesday night though, he has had to coach to overcome something most other coaches and teams experience with some kind of regularity: defeat.
Assaiante had been ready for this day though. He repeats a saying that he’s had prepared for the occasion, one that he’ll repeat many times to anyone who asks about his team’s now-defunct streak.
"Failure exposes character," he recites. "This is our chance to shine."
And perhaps the same thing can be said for the sport itself. Through failed attempts to be accepted at the Olympic level, Assaiante says the sport is now at its best. He doesn’t seem worried about its future. He’s confident that he'll see squash in the Olympics someday.
For now, he's only worried about Harvard -- the team's next opponent -- and how to navigate the path to a 14th-straight national championship. And for a group that has dealt with the burden of carrying the longest streak in college sports history, that's a refreshingly simple concern.
"Now," Assaiante says, "We're free to fly."
-- Eric Adelson contributed to this story.
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