Austin Schiff and the Cincinnati Squash Academy in OTR

By John Erardi, Contributing Writer
Videos and Photos by Madison Schmidt

St. Xavier High School graduate Austin Schiff had no idea exactly what he was getting into when he accepted the job as executive director of the Cincinnati Squash Academy in Over-the-Rhine three years ago.

He knew that ever since second grade he had loved playing squash. He had learned to adapt to challenging circumstances having worked for two years in Greenwood, Miss., public schools on the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta teaching Algebra I and Geometry in the "Teach for America" program. He hoped (but didn't know) that his English major at Vanderbilt University would serve him well in writing applications for grants.

 Austin Schiff, executive director of the Cincinnati Squash Academy.

“The first three months we laid the groundwork and partnered with local high school, and the first day we showed up to pick up the kids, and nobody came out. That was a wake-up call, a rough day … We went back to the drawing board, (partnering with grade schools and middle schools to get to the kids at a younger age), relentlessly calling parents and teachers and principals and resource coordinators – doing it for every single kid.”

Today, the academy is partners with four schools: St. Joseph, Hays-Porter, CHCA Otto Armleder and Taft High School, all within walking distance of the Academy.

There are 40-some students in the program now, from an initial pool of almost 300 who tried out.  The components of character, enthusiasm and attendance are paramount.

 Kiylah Smoot talks with Austin Schiff after practice at the Cincinnati Squash Academy Monday May 8, 2017.

“You show up every day and are excited to be here and work hard – and you’re open to learning – you’ll make it, 100 percent,” Schiff said. “You don’t have to be a Straight A student or the best squash player. That’s why you’re coming to us. We have the staff, the team that can make you a great person. We have the opportunities and the networks here. But you have to show up, ready to learn.”

It was only about two years ago that I became aware there was even such a thing as the Cincinnati Squash Academy.

 Austin Schiff, executive director of the Cincinnati Squash Academy, hands out papers and academic work to students at the Cincinnati Squash Academy. The program incorporates an emphasis on education in addition to athletics.

I was walking down Republic Street from the Ezzard Charles mural on Liberty Street, when nine doors down from Salazar’s Restaurant (14th and Republic) I saw the sign for the Academy. I told myself, “Hey, there might be a story there,” but not until Cincinnati People publisher/editor Jackie Reau came to me with the story idea just recently did I set to work on it.

Back in the 1970s, I played squash to stay in shape for baseball at an East Coast college before I transferred to a school in the mid-south, where nobody knew the sport from the vegetable that grows on vines that creep along the ground.

 Vir Seth, squash director of the Cincinnati Squash Academy, runs drills with his kids at the Cincinnati Squash Academy Monday May 8, 2017.

Squash has always been pretty well-known on the east coast.

Enter Greg Zaff of Boston.

“The thing I’m most impressed by is they (Cincinnatians) would have people of the caliber of the Wyant family to get behind it, and put the board (of directors in place), and raise the resources to build the courts and get a top-notch leader in place like Austin to run it,” said Zaff, 54, who is the Johnny Appleseed of urban squash.

It is important to know Zaff’s story too, because it has become Cincinnati’s story.

 Payton Combs serves the ball in her match with Kiylah Smoot Monday May 8, 2017 at the Cincinnati Squash Academy.

Zaff was Austin Schiff 1.0, having played racquet sports as a youth, and squash in college and professionally. Not until he wrote a paper while studying for his Master’s degree at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in his late 20s. The paper discussed bringing squash to the inner-city and Zaff began to envision the sweet spot of a career.

“His paper, basically, was ‘bringing it down from the ivory tower,’” said Schiff, smiling. “When he started urban squash, he didn’t think it was going to become what it has.”

 Kiylah Smoot looks back between serves in her after school match at the Cincinnati Squash Academy Monday May 8, 2017.

I love what Zaff told The Boston Globe last year, because it puts everything into perspective for me as it regards squash – and his one-man mission to change it:

“I was feeling really disappointed in how elitist the sport was and how unavailable and unknown,” Zaff said. “It’s in every city, but you’re sequestered off in these private clubs and everybody looks the same and comes from the same background — even more so than tennis. Tennis back in the 1940s was where squash was in the 1990s.”

What started for Zaff as “SquashBusters” (yes, it is an homage to the movie, the original “Ghostbusters,” starring Dan Akroyd, John Belushi and Bill Murray) with 24 youngsters in that first year back in 1995, has grown to 300 youngsters, with anewly chartered program in Lawrence, Mass., and another program soon to be in Providence, R.I.

Zaff’s nugget of an idea has spread nationally: It grew from four urban squash programs in 2005.

 Kids of the Cincinnati Squash Academy watch as Coach Vir Seth show them techniques during practice Monday May 8, 2017.

“I got together with the people running them and said we have to organize” – and today it is 20 programs, including Cincinnati.

The umbrella organization which Zaff and the other four directors founded is the “National Urban Squash + Education Association (NUSEA),” now headed by Tim Wyant (son of Peg Wyant, Cincinnati Squash Academy’s board chair), who started the Bronx, N.Y, urban squash program, CitySquash.

“They wanted to start a program here (in Cincinnati), and it took a while but eventually they found this building,” Schiff said. “It was a basketball court, so they converted it to three squash courts.”

Zaff has been a mentor to Schiff, somebody Schiff could call in the early days of Cincinnati’s program to discuss problem-solving matters.

 Coach Vir Seth helps Katie Whitt through proper technique during practice at the Cincinnati Squash Academy Monday May 8, 2017.

In my 30-plus years of sports writing in this city, my favorite subjects to write about are coaches and young athletes who are involved in the mainstreaming of sports and activities to kids who might otherwise not get to play them, whether it be Buddy LaRosa and his jewel of an OTRboxing gym, or Darrion Arnold and the basketball team at DePaul Cristo Rey High School, or Nick Mosley and the basketball team at St. Bernard High School, or Dustin Carter wrestling at Hillsboro High School, or Ted Kremer batboy’ing for the Reds.

Schiff and the backers of the Cincinnati Squash Academy are taking this concept to a whole new level.

Without this program, I know from experience there would be almost no chance for an inner-city youth to be exposed to an indoor-racquet game. 

 Kids of the Cincinnati Squash Academy run sprints during practice Monday May 8, 2017.

Somebody had to go waaaay out their way to make that happen.

The squash academy’s building, originally a settlement house for German immigrants, dates back to 1871.

When Schiff showed me the three squash courts at the academy, where a bucket held modern, oblong-shaped rackets, and the walls opposite the court held wooden, perfectly round vintage racquets that look more akin to badminton racquets, it took me a while to acclimate myself.

"You mean..." I said to Schiff, and he instantly nodded, knowing where I was going with this.

"Now I really feel old," I said. "I played with racquets that like those," pointing to the relics on the wall. "I feel like (golfer) Gene Sarazen from the era of hickory-stick niblicks and mashies taking a half-century off, then being beamed into the new era of slot-technology irons, utility clubs, 3-4 wedges of various lofts and huge-headed metal drivers."

 Austin Schiff, executive director of the Cincinnati Squash Academy, watches over as the kids run through practice matches at the Cincinnati Squash Academy Monday May 8, 2017.

But this isn’t about me; it’s about seeing these kids flock to squash.

“It’s not a glamorous sport, not basketball or football,” Schiff said. “But you know what? It’s not hard to get these younger kids into the game.  They say, ‘I get to hit the ball with this?’ Once they start connecting with the ball, and get the feel of the racquet, they take to it. They like it.”

Schiff has an exceptional background, perfect, really, to run a program like this. He was first exposed to the sport by Charlie Johnson, a southerner. Don’t ask me how a southerner wound up in Cincinnati so many years ago, but there was Schiff, and he couldn’t get enough of it.  He took an introductory class, then stayed for another introductory and wanted to attend a third, before Charlie told him, politely, “go home; get the heck out of here.”

 Austin Schiff, executive director of the Cincinnati Squash Academy, helps Reese Clary with math work at the Cincinnati Squash Academy. The program incorporates an emphasis on education in addition to athletics.

“He taught me the love the game, the passion, the ferocity, the etiquette, the honor that is so inherent with it,” Schiff said. “I didn’t know it when I first was exposed to it, but it’s absolutely great for childhood development. You have to keep your cool; you get down in a match, you’re the only one who can get you out of the hole.”

The Cincinnati Squash Academy has a made a major commitment to this program: a long-term commitment of eight to 10 years (“to and through college,” is the mantra) for each student who sticks with it.  There’s a lot of weeding out and holding students to high standards so that when you’ve “graduated” from the Cincinnati Squash Academy, it’s about a lot more than squash.

 Austin Schiff, executive director of the Cincinnati Squash Academy.