Squash is moving up in the world.
Next year, squash will become a varsity sport, as Columbia joins the rest of the Ivy League in having women’s and men’s varsity squash teams.
“Squash is an international sport and a natural fit for a university that is committed to diversity and globalization,” Athletics Director M. Dianne Murphy said. “Columbia prides itself on being a truly international campus, so it makes perfect sense to offer a sport that is popular around the globe.”
Squash is also popular around New York City and in the rest of the league, so why has it taken this long for Columbia to launch the varsity program?
“Philadelphia, New York, and northern New Jersey are the ‘Meccas’ of squash and where the sport is most popular so I think one would expect Columbia University to have an established team based on these factors,” said junior Daniel Gentile, co-captain and three-year member of the men’s squash team.
Club squash hasn’t had the necessary funding to be a varsity sport, or, until recently, proper courts to practice on.
“We have consistently been going way over our annual budget because we have to travel to play many other teams and pay for our own uniforms,” Gentile said. “To me it seems like the only reason why it has taken us so long to become varsity is that Columbia hasn’t wanted to invest the money in us, which is of course frustrating because without things like a head coach and proper facilities, it is obviously difficult to compete with other teams that have those things.”
That will all change thanks to a gift from Geoff Grant, SEAS ’82, and his wife Annette, BC ’83, through The Columbia Campaign for Athletics: Achieving Excellence, which will allow for the creation of a varsity program.
“Additional funding to operate the squash programs will come from annual fund giving from former club squash alumni and additions to the varsity squash endowment,” Murphy said.
Having both a men’s and women’s team was also a key consideration in the decision to make club squash into a varsity sport. Additional funding from the NCAA for budding women’s varsity sports sped up the establishment of the teams.
The Lions now prepare for varsity play on regulation world-class courts at the StreetSquash facilities in Harlem on 115th Street at Lenox Avenue, where they also volunteer weekly in an after-school urban youth enrichment program. Although they have been playing on a varsity level for some time, until last year the squash teams had to practice on the old courts in Dodge Gym, which fit North American standards but not the international regulations used in intercollegiate competitions. The irregular courts posed some obstacles for club squash in competitions.
“We couldn’t even host home matches because other teams would not want to play us on the courts, so we would have to arrange to play at an athletic club in the city somewhere,” Gentile said.
Despite being a club sport without full-time coaches, recruited athletes, or facilities, Columbia squash has posed real competition to varsity teams. The teams meet NCAA and Ivy League standards and are nationally ranked with other clubs and varsity teams. According to senior Tara Banani, captain of women’s squash, the team has been competing at the varsity level for the past four seasons.
“We have done a great job competing against other teams with full-time coaches and recruited players,” Banani said. “Last season, we reached an all-time high ranking of 21 in the country. ... I’m hoping that we will break the top ten in the next few years.”
Even as new varsity teams, Columbia squash can reasonably expect to move high in the ranks. In the top ten, the Light Blue women would be keeping company with the rest of the league. Harvard topped the 2009-2010 College Squash Team Rankings with the other Ivies not far behind, while Columbia slipped to No. 26. The men came in 32nd with Trinity and Princeton leading the pack.
“We are playing a top-flight schedule this year—it features the current number one and number two ranked teams in Trinity College and Yale as well as many other top 25 teams,” said men’s co-captain, senior Daniel Lipsitz. “We also participated in the Ivy League Scrimmages—six Ivy League teams are in the top ten nationally—so that was quite a challenge.”
But Columbia will not be jumping into the ring with the other league schools immediately. According to Murphy, men’s and women’s squash will be on a full Ivy League schedule in the 2011-2012 season, but will play other teams at an appropriate level for the 2010-2011 season.
A major difference that will mark the transition from club sport and improve Columbia’s standing will be the addition of recruited athletes.
“We are proud of the hard work that is being put in by our current participants in the club squash programs,” Murphy said. “When the athletics program officially welcomes recruited varsity student-athletes, we will see the level of play improve even more.”
Yet co-captain Gentile doesn’t foresee a huge improvement with the introduction of recruits.
“I don’t think the level of play will be that much different next year,” Gentile said. “We are getting a handful of recruits but we are also losing a lot of players from both teams. And the players that we are getting are obviously not of the same caliber that would go to a school like Princeton or Yale with a long established and highly competitive program.”
Lipstiz hopes that the establishment of a varsity team will attract more squash-playing students.
“Certainly, Columbia will attract more students that have a background in squash, so there will be heightened competition for spots on the team,” Lipsitz said. “The squad had always been composed largely of students with a history of playing squash, and I anticipate that there will always be room on the team for experienced players admitted without recruiting help.”
In addition to new athletes, the teams can look forward to new coaches. The Columbia Squash Alumni and Friends Head Coach of Squash position has been established, and will be renamed in honor of Associate Athletics Director for Physical Education Ken Torrey, who has worked hard to bring varsity squash into being, upon his retirement.
As the squash teams prepare for an elevated level of competition, they are practicing harder than ever.
“We are working our hardest to get as fit as possible before what will be a grueling national championship competition next month,” Lipsitz said. “Otherwise we are fine-tuning our strokes and making sure that each type of shot is incorporated into our repertoires.”
While Columbia moves to add squash to its list of varsity programs, it doesn’t seem this will be happening for other club sports anytime soon.
“There are no plans to launch new varsity sports programs at this time,” Murphy said.
The squash players are excited, as they hope to see their sport gain more prominence.
“I hope the ascension to varsity will increase the cachet of this great sport on the Columbia campus. It’s tremendous to watch and even more thrilling to play,” Lipsitz said.
Those hoping to see some live squash can watch Columbia’s match against Fordham on Feb. 11 at 7:00 p.m. at the StreetSquash Center on 115th Street and Lenox Avenue.