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Fencing: National title defense is a unique challenge

Conor Kelly | Wednesday, February 29, 2012

It is one thing for a team to defend a championship when it is favored. It is another thing altogether to defend a championship when the team must spend the entire regular season searching for an identity in the wake of graduating seniors, Olympic departures and coaching changes.

The Irish, after winning the national championship in 2011, are now set to begin their title defense after a regular season that saw the team start slowly but come on strong as the season closed. The squad is now primed to make a run deep into the NCAA tournament, according to Irish coach Janusz Bednarski.

Bednarski said his team has had to work hard to craft its identity and mentality in the wake of a series of challenges this season.

“I think they have done a very good job,” Bednarski said. “The biggest thing is that they work very hard. We have great training sessions. Everything we have built comes from hard work.”

The Irish were dealt their first challenge in the beginning of the year as several top fencers, including senior foilist Gerek Meinhardt, would miss the entire year to train for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The departure of some of the team’s best athletes forced the rest of the squad to step up.

The Irish struggled to 2-3 records for both the men and the women in the season’s opening meet at the St. John’s Duals, but improved as the season progressed, highlighted by 12-0 sweeps by both teams at the Notre Dame Duals on Jan. 28 and 29.

“We have developed a team of fencers that wants to show that they like stepping in and fencing against the best in the country with full emotion and engagement,” Bednarski said. “We as a staff have tried to foster the right psychology and mental strategy for the team, especially as a young team that happens to be the defending national champions. Now we get to see how it works.”

According to Bednarski, the leadership of the upperclassmen has been instrumental in establishing the team’s identity. Junior epeeist James Kaull even briefly acted as coach to the epee squad following the departure of coach Marek Stepien after the 2011 season.

“Our upperclassmen have worked with the freshmen to take away distractions,” Bednarski said. “There is really a bridge between all classes on both teams.”

Even with a full season to work out the postseason lineup, Bednarski waited until this past weekend to get a final look, as the Irish sent a small number of individual teams to the U.S. Squad Championships in New York.

Though each individual discipline represented took home a medal, the real value was in giving a few select athletes one final chance to show that they deserve to be fencing in the coming weeks.

“I think in most cases we had a positive reading on our athletes,” Bednarski said. “The competition was very different from usual because individual fencers had the chance to make up points on weaker ones. It was great to see guys like [junior sabreur] Jason Choy and [senior foilist] Enzo Castellani step up. They will be important for us going forward.”

With the Midwest Conference championship on tap this weekend at home, the postseason has almost arrived, with the prospect of a second-straight national championship just beyond the horizon but slowly coming into view.


Contact Conor Kelly at ckelly17@nd.edu