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Fencing: Irish reclaim national crown

Conor Kelly | Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Following a close defeat to Penn State at the 2010 NCAA championships, the 18 Irish senior fencers set a goal in the offseason — get back to the championship match, but this time win it.

Ranked No. 1 in the country from the beginning of the year, the Irish throttled the competition at the Temple Open in Philadelphia, the first match of the year, and never looked back en route to winning the eighth team championship in Notre Dame history and its first since 2005.

Though the Irish were favorites from the beginning, they faced plenty of adversity along the way, the most serious being the loss of top men’s fencer junior Gerek Meinhardt to injury during a training session in December. Just the month before, Meinhardt took bronze at the World Championships in Paris, the best result in American foil in the history of the discipline.

“Gerek is truly a world-class fencer,” Irish coach Janusz Bednarski said. “To lose him was definitely a great loss, but this was a great team with great captains and great coaches. One may have been lost, but the team was still fighting. Meinhardt’s injury really mobilized the team.”

Faced with losing his top fencer for three months, Bednarski attributed his team’s resiliency to the leadership of his seniors, who kept the group on an even keel despite the immense pressure associated with being national championship favorites.

“The pressure was great because of our No. 1 ranking, but also because recently we have always seemed to finish second or third,” Bednarski said. “These seniors were competing for the last time. There was so much devotion. We will be losing a lot of great fencers.”

The Irish cruised through the NCAA regional, qualifying the maximum 12 fencers in each discipline and earning a berth in the NCAA championships at Ohio State. Once there, both the men’s and women’s teams held off familiar foe Penn State to easily take the team title. In addition, junior Courtney Hurley won the women’s individual epee title.

“These teams handled the pressure so well all year, and I really attribute that to the seniors,” Bednarski said. “They had a lot of experience, and it showed.”

The challenge to replace the outgoing seniors, including a number of All-Americans, will be made all the harder by the departure of at least four Irish fencers next year as they train for and compete in Olympic qualifying competitions. They will return the following year in spite of qualifying conflicts with NCAA competition, but for one year at least the Irish will have to do without their services.

“Losing those fencers to Olympic competition will certainly present a challenge to us, but as evidenced by our freshmen this year, we have every confidence in our ability to reload,” Bednarski said. “We expect to compete next year.”