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Squash clinched its first Ivy League title in 2018, only 8 seasons after the program’s inception.

Columbia squash began this decade not as the national powerhouse it is today but as a club sport with great promise. However, right before the start of the 2010-2011 academic year, then-Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy announced the elevation of squash from a club sport to a varsity team.

“There was significant interest from alumni of the club squash program who really wanted to go to varsity status,” Murphy said.

Peter Lasusa, CC ’79, BUS ’90; Geoff Grant, SEAS ’82; and Brooks Klimley, ’CC 79, were some of those alumni. Led by then-associate athletics director for physical education Kenneth Torrey, TC ’83, EdD ’91, these alumni worked to set up a sustainable squash program with the potential for national success.

Firsts that defined squashs decade

November 2010

Squash has its first matches as varsity teams.

The men and women lose to George Washington

University and Princeton, respectively.

December 2011

Both teams begin Ivy League competition for the first time.

The men go 1-6 in Ancient Eight play while the women go 0-7.

February 2012

The men’s team places second at the CSA National Championship. Then-first-year Ramit

Tandon is runner-up in the individual tournament. The women win the consolation bracket.

November 2012

The teams get their first national rankings.

The men are at ninth, the women 14th.

RAMIT

TANDON

March 2014

Ramit Tandon becomes the first Columbia

player named to the All-Ivy Team.

May 2015

Ramit Tandon, Osama Khalifa, and Rishi Tandon

secure the program’s first CSA All-American selections.

OSAMA

KHALIFA

March 2017

Colette Sultana and Khalifa become the first Lions

to win CSA Individual Championships.

RISHI

TANDON

February 2018

The men secure the program’s

first Ivy League title,going 7-0

in Ancient Eight play.

COLETTE

SULTANA

March 2020

The men win the Hoehn Cup, the program’s

first national title.

Source: Columbia University Athletics

GRAPHIC BY ELIZABETH KARPEN / COLUMBIA DAILY SPECTATOR

Firsts that defined squashs decade

November 2010

Squash has its first matches as varsity teams.

The men and women lose to George Washington

University and Princeton, respectively.

December 2011

Both teams begin Ivy League competition for the

first time. The men go 1-6 in Ancient Eight play

while the women go 0-7.

February 2012

The men’s team takes second at the CSA

National Championship. Then-first-year Ramit

Tandon is runner-up in the individual tournament.

The women win the consolation bracket.

November 2012

The teams get their first national rankings.

The men are at ninth, the women 14th.

March 2014

Ramit Tandon becomes the first

Columbia player named to the

All-Ivy Team.

RAMIT

TANDON

May 2015

Ramit Tandon, Osama Khalifa, and Rishi

Tandon secure the program’s first CSA

All-American selections.

OSAMA

KHALIFA

RISHI

TANDON

March 2017

Colette Sultana and Khalifa become

the first Lions to win CSA Individual

Championships.

COLETTE

SULTANA

February 2018

The men secure the program’s

first Ivy League title,going 7-0

in Ancient Eight play.

March 2020

The men win the Hoehn Cup, the program’s

first national title.

Source: Columbia University Athletics

GRAPHIC BY ELIZABETH KARPEN

The inaugural squash teams were chosen through a tryout process rather than through traditional recruiting.

While squash has not had the most traditional road to success, it surely has reached its destination. The program has amassed an Ivy League title and two national titles and has become a staple in the top 10 national rankings.

In both teams’ first match-ups, the men lost to George Washington University, while the women fell to Princeton. The men’s squad, led by head coach Jacques Swanepoel, quickly bounced back to defeat Georgetown University in a close 5-4 battle. The newly-founded Lions had the potential to become champions, as both teams finished the first year with winning seasons. But these wins were hard-fought and coupled with a series of tough losses.

It was not until the 2011-12 season that the Lions began competing within the Ivy League. Despite the Light Blue’s earlier success, higher-ranked Ivy opponents proved too hard to fend off as the men went 1-6 in Ivy play and the women finished 0-7.

The men’s team fell short in Ancient Eight play, but bounced back for a runner-up finish at the College Squash Association National Team championship. Meanwhile, the women clinched the consolation bracket title. Individual success abounded as well, with then-first year Ramit Tandon seizing second place in the individual tournament.

Tandon went on to become a staple during the Light Blue’s early seasons, clinching All-Ivy team titles throughout his four years at Columbia. Tandon, alongside his younger brother Rishi Tandon, CC ’17, and Osama Khalifa, CC ’18, would go on to become the first CSA All-American selections.

Khalifa proved himself to be the Lions’ most dominant force on the court, winning the program’s first national championship during the 2017 individual CSA tournament. On the women’s side, Colette Sultana, CC ’17, captured the crown for the Division B bracket.

While Columbia squash had individual players experience accomplishments throughout the program’s history, it was not until 2018 that the Lions experienced success as a team. After a perfect Ancient Eight season, the men’s team—led by Khalifa—clinched its first Ivy League title.

During its 2019-2020 season, the Lions faltered in Ivy play, being blanked 9-0 by both Harvard and Penn. But this did not stop the young program from doing what it had never done before: clinching a team national title. The Light Blue secured the title when it bested Cornell to win the Division B championship.

All-decade team

Tony Zou, CC ’13

Zou is one of the program’s first players to truly put the team on the map. He joined the team during its first season—and his sophomore year—and spent that time notching win after win. Notably, he is the first player to compete in the College Squash Association Individual Championships every year that he was on the team. He finished his time at Columbia with an impressive runner-up finish in the consolation bracket at the individual national championships.

Ramit Tandon, CC ’15

Tandon was squash’s first Ivy League Rookie of the Year after a runner-up finish in the main draw of the CSA Individual Championships—this was his sole loss of the season. However, his accolades would continue throughout his time at Columbia. He was a four-time MVP at Columbia and finished his career ranked No. 2 in collegiate squash.

Colette Sultana, CC ’17

Sultana was the first member of the Light Blue to win a national title, which she did by securing the Division B title at the CSA Individual championships. While most of her collegiate career was defined by middle-tier competition, during her senior season, she truly broke away from the pack, tallying the best record of the team at 10-5 and winning two matches during the team championships.

Rishi Tandon, CC ’17

The younger Tandon brother showed the same dominance on the court. He was one of three players to be the program’s first All-Americans; he received second-team All-American honors for his first three seasons and first-team All-American honors his senior year. Tandon excelled tremendously throughout his junior and senior seasons, notching a perfect 7-0 record against Ivy opponents both years.

Tanvi Khanna, CC ’18

Khanna joined the team in her sophomore year and immediately became a force to be reckoned with. She was the first member of the women’s team to earn All-American honors and repeated that feat for her final two years with the Light Blue.

Osama Khalifa, CC ’18

There is no doubt that Khalifa has been the strongest squash player to grace the team throughout the program’s decade-long history. Khalifa’s career with the Lions was marked by a pattern of excellence as he established record after record. The three-time Ivy League Player of the Year and four-time first-team All-American became the first Lion in program history to win a national championship.

Maddie O’Connor, CC ’19

O’Connor spent her four yearswith the Light Blue capturing crucial wins for the team. She was the runner-up in the B Division finals both her sophomore and junior year. Her senior year was marked by shutting out numerous opponents to help the Light Blue with its highest finish in program history at No. 6 nationally.

Habiba Mohamed, CC ’21

Mohamed still has another year left with the Lions, but throughout her three years on the team, she has become a standout competitor. In her first year, she clinched the Light Blue’s win over Penn, marking the first time in program history that the team has defeated the Quakers. During her junior season, she notched a win in the CSA Individual Championship main draw and was named a first-team All-American.

Velavan Senthilkumar, CC ’21

Senthilkumar’s story with Columbia squash has not yet concluded, but in his time with the Light Blue so far, he has helped the team win its first Ivy League championship. He has also had numerous individual accomplishments, reaching the quarterfinals of the CSA individual championships in his first year.

Changes at the helm

Jacques Swanepoel was hired in 2009 as the first men’s varsity squash coach at Columbia. Later that year, the Lions came across Kelsey Engman to take over the women’s team. Engman joined the Lions after two years at Tufts University. She spent her first season with the Jumbos as an assistant coach and then took the helm in 2008.

Engman created a Division I culture with the Light Blue, taking a club sports team and coaching it to a winning season in its inaugural year at the varsity level. Under her leadership, the women’s team clinched the Epps Cup—the consolation bracket at the College Squash Association Team Championships—in 2012. Throughout her tenure, the Lions went from an unranked squad to No. 13 in the nation.

After accomplishing this feat, Engman left her post to be a pro at the Germantown Cricket Club and later, the assistant head coach at Drexel University. Following Engman’s departure, Swanepoel took over coaching the women’s team. He joined Daniel Ireland, the director of cross country and track and field and head fencing coach Michael Aufrigich in being the only co-ed coaches at Columbia.

Swanepoel entered his tenure with the Lions after competing on the South African national team and acting as a teaching professional at the Fairmount Athletic Club in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania—a hub of professional squash talent. For the first few years under Swanepoel’s leadership, the women’s squash program consistently stagnated and remained a solid middle-tier team.

However, Swanepoel’s early tenure also saw the potential to turn the men’s team into a silverware-studded program. In his first season, the Light Blue won the Division C Consolation bracket at the CSA National Championships. For the first two years of Swanepoel’s time at Columbia, his men’s tennis team won the Barnaby Award, which honors the collegiate squash team that improves the most. Within the first two years under his leadership, both the men’s and women’s squash programs were in the top 10 nationally.

He consistently cultivated a winning culture that produced numerous first-team All-Americans on both squads. The women’s team earned two consecutive berths in the Howe Cup Draw, signaling that it had the potential to become a winning program. The men consistently produced runner-up finishes in the Hoehn Cup in the B Division. However, by the 2015-16 season, Swanepoel had coached the men into qualifying for the Potter’s Cup, the top-tier bracket for men in collegiate squash.

By the 2018-19 season, no one would be able to recognize the squash programs. The depth of talent Swanepoel had cultivated had been proven as both teams competed in the Howe Cup, which brings together the top eight squash teams in the country.

This past season, Swanepoel led his men’s team to one of the highest honors in collegiate squash as it clinched the Hoehn Cup at the CSA Team Championships, where the squash teams ranked between ninth and 16th in the country compete. Columbia handily defeated Brown, the University of Western Ontario, and Cornell to take the honor home to Morningside Heights.

File Photo

A look at the 2017-18 men’s squash Ivy season

Since the 2014-15 Ivy season, the men’s squash team has not had a losing season, finishing year after year on the top half of the Ivy table. However, coming into the 2017-18 season, something was different about the Light Blue. Led by then-senior Osama Khalifa—the reigning national champion—the team was primed for Ivy greatness.

The Light Blue swept the Big Red in its Ivy opener 7-2, setting the precedent for high-quality Ancient Eight competition. Dartmouth proved to be no match for the Lions, but coming into their third matchup of the Ivy season, the stakes remained high. In the seven previous seasons of the program’s existence, the team had not defeated Harvard either in conference play or in the postseason.

However, despite loss after loss to the Crimson, the Lions had defeated them during the Ivy scrimmages earlier that season. Harvard—which was ranked No. 2 in the nation at the time—proved once again to not be an easy foe for Columbia. The Light Blue came second in the league for the previous three seasons against the nation’s oldest university.

“This was our big goal for the year: to make sure we get a win against Harvard,” head coach Jacques Swanepoel said after the match. “Obviously we want the title too, but a big part of that is making sure we can get past Harvard.”

It came down to Khalifa at the top court in order to clinch the match. It was only after five hard-fought sets that the Lions were able to take the win. The team exited that match taking Harvard’s No. 2 ranking and pushing the Crimson down to the No. 3 standing.

The battle between Harvard and Columbia did not end there. The two Ivy foes had extremely close records and depended not only on the other to slip up but also on their own team to pull through to take the lead on the Ivy table. However, Harvard did not falter, so it was up to the Light Blue to maintain its high quality of play.

This was not a problem for Columbia, as it swiftly bested Yale 6-3 and trounced Brown 8-1 in its following Ivy matchups. Coming into the final two matches of the season, it was imperative that the Lions win. Harvard had only lost to the Light Blue, and if Columbia lost both contests, it would fall to second place in the conference. If the Lions lost one matchup, they would have to share the Ivy League title with the Crimson.

Both Princeton and Penn were ranked in the top 8 squash teams nationally and were contenders for the Potter’s Cup. Those contests would be much harder than Harvard’s matchups against No. 9 Yale and No. 13 Brown.

The Tigers, however, fell easily 8-1 to the Lions; this win guaranteed that Columbia would at least claim a piece of the Ancient Eight crown. When the Light Blue faced the Quakers, on the other hand, it came down to the final court to decide the victor. For each point the Lions earned, the Quakers would seize one of their own. Once again, it came down to Khalifa, who took the crown in three sets. This was the first Ivy League title for the Light Blue, and it remains the lone crown for the program. It won’t be seen until the 2020-21 season whether the women’s team can clinch a title of their own.

Sports Editor Lizzie Karpen can be contacted at elizabeth.karpen@columbiaspectator.com. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieKarpen.

A decade in athletics Kelsey Engman Velavan Senthilkumar Habiba Mohamed Maddie O’Connor Tanvi Khanna Tony Zou Colette Sultana Squash Jacques Swanepoel M Dianne Murphy Osama Khalifa Rishi Tandon Ramit Tandon
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