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Arielle Shternfeld / Senior Staff Photographer

Senior Chichi Ikwuazom currently has the highest average kills per set in the nation at 5.96.

In its season’s first homestand, Columbia volleyball defeated Fordham, San Jose State, and Long Island University in back-to-back battles at the Big Apple Tournament on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The three-game win streak propelled the team to its best start in almost a decade.

Senior Chichi Ikwuazom and junior Audrey Cheng headlined the Lions’ winning effort against Fordham on Thursday. Cheng recorded the first Light Blue triple-double in over a decade with 47 assists, 13 kills, and 12 digs, another historic moment for the 2019 team.

“Of course, this was our home opener, so we really wanted to come out strong on our home court,” Cheng said.

Cheng kept her focus on the team, noting that her triple-double was “just a statistic.”

Ikwuazom continued her early-season dominance with her performance against the Rams, finishing with 24 kills in a characteristically strong showing. Ikwuazom’s efficiency on the court is unmatched, as her blistering pace of 5.96 kills per set leads the nation.

Thursday’s victory didn’t come easily, though. In both the first and second sets, the Light Blue trailed the Rams 16-11, before fighting back to tie and eventually take the lead. Columbia won a long second set 30-28, with key kills from first-years Soah Franklin and Kiara Robichaud.

Ikwuazom mentioned her team’s resilience when trailing, saying, “It’s all a mental game, so going back to the basics and making sure you’re executing and having each other’s backs as a team.”

The Lions (7-2, 0-0 Ivy) showcased their flexibility when they sprinted to a 10-3 lead in the fourth set, which they dominated 25-18, after Fordham took a contested third set 25-20.

Coach Allison Keeley praised this part of her team’s game, saying, “When they got down a little bit, they didn’t give up, they just kept fighting. … It was exciting.”

In the Sept. 20 win, a five-set match against San Jose State University, Ikwuazom was a difference-maker again, matching her personal record of 29 kills, good for fourth-highest in school history. She was supported by Cheng, who assisted 24 of Ikwuazom’s kills. Assistant coach Julie Anderson called the game a solid team win.

“Having that extra oomph to pull through a five-set, especially when you start out down—it says a lot about the character of the team,” Anderson said.

Columbia was resilient throughout the night, following both set losses with victories. It dropped the first set 25-23, a back-and-forth affair involving multiple six-point runs from both teams, and then dominated the second set 25-18, never trailing after a 10-1 opening run. The team carried that energy into the third set, battling to a 27-25 victory, but dropped the fourth to the sharp-serving and clean Trojans, who posted four aces and half as many errors as the Lions.

The team then bounced back to a commanding 15-8 victory, as jeers of “Warm up the bus!” filled the gym. Ikwuazom and Cheng each recorded three kills, leading the team to victory.

Anderson also emphasized the contributions first-years made to the win. First-year defensive specialist/libero Vanessa Pan’s five aces led the match. In the third, first-year outsider hitter Noelle Foster’s kill gave the Lions their first lead since early in the set, and chants of “She’s a freshman” from the crowd echoed throughout the arena. Foster hit .571 for the game, leading the Lions in average.

The Lions outlasted LIU for another thrilling win on Saturday night, clawing back from a two-set deficit to top the Sharks in a five-set contest.

After lackluster losses in the first two sets, the Light Blue exploded to its biggest margin of victory this season with a 25-9 win in the third set. Building off that momentum, the Lions finished the match with two tight victories 25-22 and 15-13. Ikwuazom recorded 28 kills on an efficient .521 hitting percentage while Cheng assisted on 47 of the Lions’ kills.

As the preseason draws to a close, the Lions sit second in the Ivy League, and, per Anderson, a sense of excitement runs through the team.

“We’re excited,” Ikwuazom said. “The teams out there are very good, but we’re preparing ourselves for the challenge, working in practice, getting better every day. Should be fun.”

The group will look to continue its success with its first Ivy League bout at Cornell on Saturday, Sept. 28. First serve will be at 2 p.m.

Staff writer Clara Ence Morse can be contacted at clara.encemorse@columbiaspectator.com. Follow her on Twitter @ccemorse.

Staff writer Miles Schachner can be contacted at miles.schachner@columbiaspectator.com. Follow him on Twitter @miles_shak

Volleyball Chichi Ikwuazom Audrey Cheng Fordham San Jose State LIU Allison Keeley Julie Anderson Noelle Foster Soah Franklin Kiara Robichaud
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