Columbia continued its rapid rise through the ranks of men’s squash, winning its first Ivy League championship with an undefeated league record and finishing the season number 3 in the nation, its highest final ranking ever.
It’s a remarkable success story, considering that Columbia did not field varsity teams in squash until the 2010–11 season. The Lions, coached by Jacques Swanepoel, achieved their initial goal of “5 in 5” by earning a place in the top five of the men’s rankings in 2014–15, their fifth varsity season. This year they took another giant leap forward by defeating defending league champion Harvard — for the first time — 5–4 on January 14 and then sweeping the Ivies.
“It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work and a long phase of building the right culture,” said Swanepoel, who has led the program since its inception in September 2009.
MIKE McLAUGHLIN / COLUMBIA ATHLETICS
“It feels surreal to finally win this title,” Khalifa said. “It is the best moment by far of my four years. We have all worked so hard to achieve this, and I couldn’t be any prouder of my teammates today.”
The Lions finished third in the College Squash Association Team National Championships on February 23–25, beating Rochester 6–3 in the first round, losing to Harvard 6–3 in the semifinals and then bouncing back to defeat St. Lawrence 7–2 to secure the No. 3 national ranking.
Columbia’s only loss of the regular season came at the hands of national champion Trinity College by a margin of 6–3 on January 10.
The Ivy championship team was a mix of proven veterans and talented younger players. Co-captains Khalifa, Seif Attia ’18 and Arhum Saleem ’18 provided experienced leadership, Khalifa going 10–2 while playing primarily at number 1 against the opponent’s top player, Attia compiling a 10–3 record at numbers 2–4 and Saleem posting a 10–2 mark in the middle of the nine-man lineup. But non-seniors also made vital contributions in the dual-meet season, with Krish Kapur ’21 going 12–1, Robin Mann ’20 11–1, Velavan Senthilkumar ’21 10–1 and Carter Robitaille ’19 9–4.
The Lions’ most noteworthy victory came against Harvard on Columbia’s home court, the SL Green Streetsquash Center in Harlem, on January 14. The Crimson were ranked second in the nation at the time and had won the Ivy championship four of the last five seasons; the Lions finished second in each of the last three years.
Adham Madi ’19, Senthilkumar, Mann and Kapur won the first four matches for Columbia. It was up to Khalifa to clinch the match, and he did it in a thrilling five-setter against Harvard’s Saadeldin Abouaish. The two went back and forth through the first four sets, Abouaish taking the fourth 14–12 to extend the match to the limit. But Khalifa prevailed 11–9 to give Columbia one of the biggest wins in program history.
“It was one of the most exciting matches ever,” said Khalifa. As for beating Harvard, he said, “It’s something we’ve all been working toward, so it was amazing when it all came together.” Added Saleem, “We’ve come so close these past three years. To be able to clinch it in our senior year is an unbelievable experience.”
Columbia’s women’s team, meanwhile, finished its season ranked sixth nationally after beating Penn for the first time by a 5–4 count on February 12. The Lions ended the campaign with a 9–5 record overall and 4–3 in the Ivy League.