Jan. 18, 2018
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Annie Tyson grew up in a family with ties to three prominent liberal arts colleges — Amherst, Wellesley and Haverford — and she initially planned to follow a familiar route.
As a senior at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, Tyson decided she would apply early decision at Amherst, her father’s alma mater, and, if accepted, join the women’s lacrosse team there.
She never made it to Amherst. Tyson had also drawn interest from the club squash program at the University of Virginia, and head coach Mark Allen contacted her after learning that she was about to apply early decision to Amherst.
“Mark said,’ Don’t do anything yet. Let me figure it out,’ ” Tyson said. “So the next day he offered me a spot.”
Still, Tyson wasn’t sure which way to go. Her sister, Lilly, a member of the squash team at Wellesley, nudged her toward Charlottesville.
“My sister called and said, `Amherst is a great choice and I know you would love it there, but it would be so cool if you did something a little bit different, too, because our family has never been a part of a big community like that [of UVA],’ ” Tyson recalled.
The more she thought about it, the more the idea appealed to her.
“I accepted [Allen’s] offer and I never turned back,” Tyson said.
Now a junior, she’s a leader in a program that gained varsity status last summer. Tyson usually plays No. 5 or No. 6 for the 13th-ranked Virginia women, who’ll host two matches Saturday — against Drexel and Georgetown — at the Boar’s Head Resort’s McArthur Squash Center.
“She’s a natural athlete,” Allen said.
Tyson played as much lacrosse as squash growing up, if not more, and there “are some advantages to that,” Allen said. “Having played and been an active participant in [multiple] sports, she comes with just a great deal of athleticism. The potential to become a very good collegiate squash player was there from the beginning, and that’s a large degree why we recruited her and got her into the program, and she’s definitely fulfilling that potential.
“At the beginning, the weaknesses in her game were mostly about developing her technique and a better understanding of the strategy of squash, and now she’s doing that. She’s really proving her value to the team, and on top of all those things she’s also just a natural competitor.”
Tyson, her team’s MVP in 2015-16 and 2016-17, has earned the nickname “Annie Clutch,” Allen said, “because she always comes through in the big matches for us.
“She’s been great, because she’s very coachable and she wants to learn, and you’re taking that athletic base that she has and just harnessing it. It’s awesome. She brings an excellent attitude to every single day of practice.”
Her father played squash at Amherst, and Tyson started playing the sport competitively when she was about 11. She played lacrosse from about the fourth grade through her senior year at Germantown Friends. A midfielder and attacker, she also played for the Ultimate Goal Lacrosse club, on which her teammates included Avery Shoemaker, now a standout for the women’s team at UVA.
“Squash was always kind of the family sport,” Tyson said, “but I really didn’t like playing individual tournaments, because I was much more of a team player. So I preferred lacrosse in that way, because it was always a team sport and you had your team driving behind you.”
Connecticut offered her a scholarship in lacrosse, and she enjoyed her visit to the school. In the end, though, Tyson decided she didn’t want athletics to be her primary focus in college.
“I knew that I wasn’t going to become a professional squash or lacrosse player after college,” she said. “I asked myself: If I broke my leg, would I still enjoy going to that school?”
She was still in high school when, after a lacrosse tournament in Virginia, her father suggested that they drive to Charlottesville. She didn’t see much of the Grounds on that visit, Tyson recalled, “but we went to the McArthur Squash Center, and I’ve never seen a more beautiful facility in my entire life.”
She completed and submitted a form to the squash coaches at UVA, letting them know she was interested in learning more about the program. “About a month later I got an email from Grant White, our assistant coach,” Tyson recalled, “and he said, `All of a sudden we’ve opened up a few spots on our team. We’re looking to go varsity in the future, and we’d love for you to come for a visit.’
“I was very open in terms of visiting, but in my mind I was like, `There’s no way I’m going there.’ But I scheduled a visit for [September 2014] and I came here and just absolutely fell in love. They took me to a football game. I had never been to a big college football game before, and I loved it.”
She also met members of UVA’s squash club — Tyson already knew Mason Blake from the men’s team — and watched them practice.
“They were just so welcoming,” he said. “Everyone made a big effort to introduce themselves, and Mark was the most honest coach I talked to, between both squash and lacrosse recruitment. He told me the good and the bad.”
Allen said: “I never want these kids to come not knowing exactly what they’re coming in for. There was a reason why she wanted to go to a liberal arts school, and I wanted her to be sure if she did come here that she was making the right decision for her.”
Tyson “came and got a feeling for the school and upon leaving had a much better idea of what UVA had to offer and saw that it maybe wasn’t as scary and daunting [as she’d imagined],” Allen said.
Some recruits “envision UVA as this massive school where they’re going to get lost and be anonymous,” Allen said, but upon visiting they learn “there is a pretty intimate feel about the place.”
Tyson, a psychology major who hopes to pursue a career in sports psychology, has thrived in Charlottesville.
“I’ve never felt suffocated at UVA, and I feel like I’ve really enjoyed the people I’ve chosen in my community,” she said. “It’s like there’s always room to grow, which I appreciate. I’ve never felt stuck in any way — academically, socially or in squash. You have your squash team, which is fun, and that’s your family, but then you branch out from your family and you find amazing friends, too.”
That squash now carries a higher profile at UVA has “been really fun,” Tyson said. “We’ve been practicing like a varsity sport for the last couple years, and it’s definitely nice to just get recognition for what we do and the commitment we all had to the team.
“There are a few more eyes on us, and we want to show that we deserve to have this varsity status, and I think we’ve done that so far.”