By Anne Bello
Published May 23, 2011 at 7:00 AM ET; Updated May 22, 2011 at 7:49 PM ET

Princeton, NJ — The Columbia women capped their first season as a varsity program by winning the 2011 Most Improved Team Award.

The award, which was first presented in 2010, recognizes the team that has improved the most since the past season. The award is based on both the number of spots a team has improved in the rankings as well as the strength of the opponents they have surpassed.

Last year, the Lions finished out the program’s club era by winning the Epps Cup (D Division) and finishing 25th in the nation. That was Columbia’s second highest finish since the team started competing in the 2006-2007 season. That year, the Lions ended up 30th, ahead of only one other team.

The team was competing on another level this season. The Lions only lost three players from last year’s roster to graduation, and the top four players from that squad returned. Five first-year players joined the team and all competed in the top nine, instantly adding depth and strength to the Columbia ladder.

Princeton coach Gail Ramsay presents the 2011 Most Improved Team Award to Columbia captain Anne Cheng

Princeton coach Gail Ramsay presents the 2011 Most Improved Team Award to Columbia captain Anne Cheng

Columbia came into the season ranked 20th, higher than the program had ever finished. But a 6-3 win over 16th-ranked George Washington in November showed that the Lions were stronger than anyone had thought. They backed up that win with another 6-3 victory over 13th-ranked Mount Holyoke in January.

Columbia moved up two divisions to compete in the Kurtz Cup (B Division) at the 2011 Women’s National Team Championships. The Lions had a challenging time in their first foray into the extremely competitive B Division, going 0-3 on the championship weekend. However, they were in every match, falling 3-6 to Middlebury and eventual division finalists Williams and narrowly losing to George Washington 4-5 in the final match of the season.

With only one senior graduating, the Lions should be able to build on this years’ experiences and come back as a force to be reckoned with in the B Division.

The Lions are coached by Kelsey Engman, and Liz Chu and Anne Cheng were the 2010-2011 captains.

For other photos from the 2011 award ceremony, please visit mtbello.com.