The 2010s was the best decade in Columbia volleyball history. Volleyball experienced four top-three finishes and nine All-Ivy League First Team selections, making the 2010s the most successful decade in the entire history of the program. While the team had stretches of dominance and flashes of title contention, it also had long periods of inconsistency. The Lions found themselves in the bottom quarter of the conference in four seasons and with three different coaches throughout the decade. Over the course of the decade, volleyball finished 112-125 overall, and 62-78 in conference play.
Much of the decade was spent transitioning between leadership, as the three respective coaches had very different styles of play, coaching, and communication. Former head coach Jonathan Wilson worked closely with captain and outside hitter Megan Gaughn, CC ’13, to lead the team to unprecedented success, playing an offensively powerful game. When Brie Katz took over the head coach position in 2013, she implemented a more static lineup and a tighter defensive structure, but could not communicate effectively with many players, leading to her resignation in 2018.
Current head coach Allison Keeley began her tenure focusing on changing the program’s culture, and while her teams have produced the best offense of the decade and Columbia’s first All-American, they had not yet broken into the top half of the conference.
These three coaches helped define the three distinctly different eras of the decade. The decade was also shaped by stellar players like Gaughn, libero Cassie Wes, CC ’17, and senior middle blocker Chichi Ikwuazom.
Across coaches, star players, and styles of play, Columbia volleyball had a penchant for the underdog win this decade. Even in their weakest years, the Lions still defeated Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and other conference superpowers, leading to moments of glory in otherwise forgettable seasons.
The 2010s saw the top four Ivy showings in Columbia history and great performances—as well as underwhelming inconsistencies—under three different coaches.
Overall, Wilson was 63-61 during the decade with a 0.508 winning percentage and, in Ivy play, 29-41 with a 0.414 winning percentage. Both marks are the best in Columbia volleyball history.
The most successful volleyball coach in Columbia history recorded three straight top-three finishes to start the decade, nurturing the leadership of top players and growing the program from one that had to recruit a player from a physical education volleyball class to stay alive into a full-fledged championship competitor.
Wilson put a winning team together around the dominant presence of outside hitter Megan Gaughn, CC ’13, to push towards a championship title. With the consistency afforded by Gaughn and three-year starting setter Colleen Brennan, CC ’14, the team could recruit players that would have been unattainable in years prior. Wilson brought in outside hitter Caitlin Brenton, CC ’12, who provided solid play for two years, and recruited starting libero Charlee Dyroff, CC ’14, GSAS ’20, as a sophomore transfer. Perhaps the strongest testimony to Wilson’s coaching is that Columbia became a place players longed to transfer to, not one they wanted to leave behind.
Of course, one cannot ignore the unsatisfactory season that was 2013. With Gaughn graduated and Brennan out due to injury, Wilson finished eighth in the league before retiring, leaving the Lions in a situation ironically similar to the one they were in when Wilson began coaching.
However, in the end, his lasting legacy will be the wins. Just two years after Wilson lost all 14 Ivy games in his rookie season, a familiar record for the Light Blue volleyball, he brought the team closer to the championship than it had ever been before—and then one-upped himself in 2012, winning nine conference games to finish second in the conference. After turning the program around, he started the decade off on the right foot.
Overall, Katz was 45-71, with a 0.388 winning percentage, the fourth-best coaching record in Columbia history. In Ivy League play, Katz’ teams attained a 27-43 record, with a 0.386 winning percentage, the second-best conference coaching record in Columbia history.
Brie Katz began her first season as head coach after nearly a decade of experience as an assistant coach for the Lions. Two years removed from the best showing in Columbia history and one year away from a last-place finish, Katz had to try to stabilize the team without Gaughn’s leadership, or, in fact, very many experienced players at all. In 2013, the team had only one junior and two seniors, who both suffered injuries at the start of the season, contributing to a miserable 6-game Ivy losing streak in the middle of the season. The leadership situation in 2014 was similar; with only one senior, the team finished seventh in the conference.
The one bright spot under Katz was a third-place finish in 2016, when the Lions combined the second-best offense and third-best defense of the decade. The stunning play of two-time Ivy Defensive Player of the Year Cassie Wes, CC ’17; the emergence of senior co-Rookie of the Year middle blocker Chichi Ikwuazom; and the performance by outside hitter Luciana Del Valle, CC ’19, ensured that the Lions were in the top half of the conference. Just about the only thing the Lions could not do was beat Princeton, as the Light Blue was swept twice by the eventual champions.
The Lions swept only one season series—outside of the fantastic 2016 season—during Katz’s tenure, beating Dartmouth twice in 2014. Inconsistency was the team’s biggest foe, allowing for both fantastic successes against much better teams and disappointing losses against beatable opponents. Katz has not returned to coach volleyball since her tenure with the Lions ended.
2018 to present
Overall, 22-26 with a 0.458 winning percentage, the second-best coaching record in Columbia history. In Ivy League play, 7-19 with a 0.269 winning percentage, the third-best conference coaching record in Columbia history.
When Allison Keeley took the helm of Columbia’s volleyball team, the move inspired hopes that she would switch things up from the reportedly static lineup and communication struggles of Katz’s squads. The transition was not the smoothest, as the Lions have gone 22-26 and 7-19 Ivy under her leadership. However, those scores amount to the second-best overall mark and the third-best Ivy mark in program history.
The 2018 squad finished 10-14 and 4-10 Ivy with a lackluster offense that struggled on the road. But while the finish was pedestrian, this season started in a completely different way than it had under Katz—the Lions spent their first practice relearning how to hit the ball over the net. This refocus seemed to pay off in the early part of the season, as the Lions went 6-4 in preseason and succeeded in the first Ivy homestand of the season. Then, they got on the bus, and the season took a turn for the worst. The Lions ended up losing all seven Ivy away games, despite outstanding play from then-first-year Emily Teehan, who led all rookies in kills, points, and aces. Columbia stumbled into a seventh place finish.
After 2018’s disappointing finish, the Lions met in the spring and decided they wanted to find a new way to play, one which embraced their old family camaraderie while prioritizing accountability. In Keeley’s words, Columbia wanted to prioritize a culture of “love and excellence.”
The culture began to develop in 2019, as Keeley designed her offense around Ikwuazom, who put down the best single-season offensive performance in program history. When on the court, Ikwuazom and Cheng could often juice up the offense enough that Columbia dominated its opponents. However, the team also had nine first-years trying to adapt to NCAA play, so its depth was sometimes shaky. And despite the fantastic play of senior libero Kalie Wood, the defense was weak, allowing the most kills per set against since 2013. For every inspiring, energetic win, it seemed there was a disheartening loss, as the team tried too hard and lost its cool in late ties and key games.
Keeley is a proponent of accountability and communication, and the young teams she has coached have sometimes risen to the challenge, driven by young standouts like Teehan and superstars like Ikwuazom and Cheng. The next step for Keeley will be figuring out how to find consistent game-to-game success, instead of the flashes in the pan her teams have shown so far.
The first choice is obvious: Captain and all-time kills leader Megan Gaughn, CC ’13, led the Lions to a second-place conference finish in 2012. With 1,284 kills, 1,065 digs, and three All-Ivy League First Team selections, Gaughn would be an iconic Lion based on her play alone. However, Gaughn’s leadership skills and commitment to the program, which went 0-14 in Ivy play the year before she came, make her arguably the best outside hitter in Columbia history. She helped make Columbia a championship contender for three straight years and earned record finish after record finish.
After Gaughn, there’s fierce competition for the second spot. Caitlin Brenton, was an offensive powerhouse in 2011 and 2012 before transferring, and Luciana del Valle, CC ’19, and Zoe Jacobs, CC ’17, also deserve honorable mentions. But co-captain and two-time All-Ivy League selection Bailey Springer, CC ’16, gets the spot due to her consistent play across four years and two coaches in an extremely difficult time for the program.
Anja Malesevic, CC ’18, began her career officially listed as an OH. But she transitioned to right side, adapted to the team environment, and became one of only five players this decade who made the All-Ivy League First Team, putting up elite numbers while working with a variety of setters, leading the team in kills for two straight years. One of the best offensive players of the Brie Katz era, Malesevic left her mark in Levien Gymnasium.
Another no-brainer selection is senior Chichi Ikwauzom, whose senior season was the most dominant by a single player in Columbia history. Her 2019 Honorable Mention as an AVCA All-American and Ivy League Player of the Year recognition were the first times a Lion has ever won either award. Although her stellar senior season led to only a sixth-place Ivy finish, the soft-spoken star put down the second-most points per set in the country to become the best middle-blocker this school has ever seen.
While not as offensively dynamic as Ikwuazom, Katarina Jovicic, CC ’16, was a traditional middle blocker who captained a young team her junior year and saw it through the difficult transitional years of 2012-15. After a slow first season, Jovicic rose through the ranks to lead all Lions with at least five attacks in blocks and hitting percentage for her last two years.
Junior Audrey Cheng is the only current player on this all-decade roster, and is less than 250 assists away from the all-time assists record with a season left to play; she will likely leave Columbia as its most productive setter by far. One of the Lions’ most vocal leaders, she drove the most impressive offense of the decade for the Lions in 2019, helping to stabilize the team through the coaching change. Going into 2020, Cheng will get a chance to step up as captain and use her energetic leadership to propel the team to success.
Two-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Cassie Wes, CC ’17, anchored the Lions’ backcourt and drove her defensively minded team to a top-three finish in 2016. After swapping in and out of the starting libero position in her first-year and sophomore seasons, she took over the job in her junior year, helping the team post over 18 digs per set overall in conference play.
Columbia volleyball has occupied every position from second to last place in the Ivy League across the decade. But even in its weakest years, there were often shining moments of potential, as the team has pulled off multiple stunning upsets over much better teams. For a game or two each season, the Lions seemed to defy their standing in the conference, playing well above the talent of the team in a testament to both its inconsistency and incredible tenacity.
Between 2010 and 2012, there wasn’t much room for upsets. The Lions earned three top-three finishes in a row, although they went 1-9 against teams that finished ahead of them in the standings. However, in 2013, the team lacked the leadership of outside hitter Megan Gaughn, CC ’13, and other key players from its earlier run of excellence, and finished in last place. This brought the first true underdog placement of the decade, as the Light Blue earned two wins against the top three Ivy teams in the midst of injury drama.
Six games into a losing streak, the Lions took on Harvard, the league’s second-best team, and stunned the Crimson in four sets. The young depth stepped up in the second to last game of the year, as first-year middle blocker Kesi Neblett launched nine blocks and sophomore Katarina Jovicic hit .667 with 10 kills. The win wasn’t enough to keep Wilson with the Lions, but it kept the season from being a complete wash.
2014’s Lions finished seventh and went 0-8 against the top half of the conference. However, in 2015, the sixth-place Lions dominated Harvard once again, returning home for the first time in a month to claim a huge 3-1 victory off the strength of over 50 assists by junior setter Jennifer Petrovich and 32 combined kills from the senior captains. But two games later, Columbia lost in five sets to the league’s worst team, handing the Big Red one of only three Ivy wins that season. Inconsistency remained the name of the game.
In 2016, the Lions’ last top-three finish of the decade, the Lions won one game against the top two Ivy League teams. It was, characteristically, a defensive domination, led by superstar senior libero Cassie Wes and helped by middle blockers up front, where then-first-year Chichi Ikwuazom and then-senior Kesi Neblett shone. Yale had been unbeatable for even Wilson’s powerhouse teams, a perennial contender with one of the league’s most potent offenses. But the defense smothered the Bulldogs into a 0.107 hitting percentage, forcing them into 32 errors, and out-blocked them 14-6 to earn a gritty five-set victory.
The 2017 team finished at the other end of the standings, but still managed five conference wins, including a five-set Homecoming epic against defending champion Princeton. In that game, despite being outhit, outkilled, and out-dug, the Lions out-blocked the Tigers 14-5. Reigning Rookie of the Year Ikwuazom put down nine blocks, more than the entire Princeton team combined, and hit an incredible 0.625, while then-first-year Audrey Cheng established herself in the starting role with a match-leading 44 assists. It was a watershed moment after a six-game losing streak to start conference play—the catalyst the team needed. The Lions beat the league’s best defense in Cornell the next weekend before securing back-to-back comeback wins against Harvard and Dartmouth. But it ended up being too little, too late, as the streaky team won only one of its final four games and finished seventh in the league.
The 2017 team was the last of the great comebacks of the decade. The 2018 team finished in seventh place and was swept in all four games against the Ivy’s best, while the 2019 squad went a consistent 0-8 against the top half of the league. Maybe coach Allison Keeley’s focus on accountability has helped the team find the consistency it has thus far lacked. And although underdog wins and fluctuating performance defined the 2010s, maybe this consistency will help the 2020s become the new best decade of Light Blue volleyball.