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Still setting the bar

Matt Mooney | Monday, December 8, 2003

Before Saturday’s fencing meet at the Penn State Duals, Irish coach Janusz Bednarski downplayed the matchup with perennial rival Penn State. In Princeton, Rutgers and North Carolina, he said, the Irish were bouting with four teams who are on top of the nation.

Mother Nature, however, had other plans. With blizzard-like conditions plaguing the East Coast, only Notre Dame could make the journey to Happy Valley.

Last year’s top two teams were left to face each other head-to-head, and, once again, the Irish and Nittany Lions produced an epic duel.

Utilizing their combination of youth and experience, both the Irish men’s and women’s squads held on to sweep the weekend matches by scores of 14-13.

The women’s squad led 13-9 before senior epeeist Kerry Walton finally slammed the door with a 5-1 decision. Penn State rallied on the men’s side as well, but this time it was a freshman saving the day for Notre Dame. First-year fencer Aaron Adjemian won his epee bout 5-2 in a winner-take-all final bout.

This rapidly maturing crop of freshmen has proven to be one of the biggest reasons for the Irish success this season. In addition to Adjemian’s clutch victory, freshman saber Valerie Providenza paved the way for the rookies with a 3-0 record on the day. But she had plenty of support behind her as well. Frankie Bontempo, Patrick Ghattas, Matthew Stearns and Angela Vincent all posted 2-1 records.

Both teams relish the win, but the men had a little more on the line. With the one-bout victory, the men also managed to continue their dual match-winning streak. Now at 87, the streak stands as the third longest in school history.

Saturday’s classic bout added just another chapter to a rivalry that extends back almost a decade. In Penn State, the Irish faced one of their most difficult foes. Over the last eight years, both Notre Dame and the Nittany Lions have always placed among the top three finishers at the NCAA Championships.

Notre Dame had struggled, however, to overcome that final hurdle and bring home a national championship. Every year from 1996-2000, the Irish fencers had to watch the title trophy stay in Happy Valley. After third place finishes in 2001 and 2002, the Irish were finally able to light up the No. 1 sign on Grace Hall with a championship last season.

While Bednarski was happy for a win, he also envisioned Saturday as a team-building experience, especially for the freshmen.

“If you never win as a team, you don’t connect,” Bednarski said. “The kids who never win through this process get frustrated. Being part of a team – that’s what college fencing is all about.”