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Fencing: Team aims for second straight title

Conor Kelly | Thursday, March 22, 2012

After a year of preparation, an inexperienced but determined Irish squad will finally have the chance to defend its 2011 national title when the NCAA championships begin Thursday in Columbus, Ohio.

Notre Dame will send only three fencers with NCAA championship experience to Columbus and will rely on nine first-timers to contribute.

“Our fencers are very good, but it is a very young team,” Irish coach Janusz Bednarski said. “To have nine fencers competing in the NCAA finals for the first time is very difficult. Especially in this event, experience is so key.”

Bednarski said senior foilist Enzo Catellani and junior epeeist James Kaull bring valuable experience to the squad, as they are making their third appearance in the NCAA championships.

“We’ll rely on [Catellani and Kaull] both for their play and for their influence and advice to the other fencers,” Bednarski said. “We have a very inexperienced team, but we are confident that they can lead us.”

The NCAA championships use a five-touch bout format as opposed to the normal 15-touch format of the regular season, which puts a premium on making adjustments early in bouts, something inexperienced fencers often struggle with.

“This competition is very special because of its format.  It’s the type of thing where you can get down early and before you have the chance to make an adjustment, you’ve already lost,” Bednarski said. “We’re doing everything we can to prepare our guys. We’re in meetings all day talking about it, but a lot of it has to come from them and our team leaders.”

Notre Dame was one of five schools to qualify the maximum 12 fencers for the event, joining St. John’s, Princeton, Harvard and Ohio State. It is the fifth consecutive year the Irish have qualified the maximum number. However, one of the last times the team failed to do so, it won the 2005 national championship. Bednarski has used this example to show his team that having greater numbers does not guarantee success.

“I think our performance in 2005 really shows that any team can take it, regardless of the number of fencers they qualify,” Bednarski said. “This year, I think Penn State really fits in that category, having only qualified 11 [fencers].  They’re extremely dangerous though, and it’s always a big fight with them. It’s a very natural rivalry for us.”

Bednarski said Ohio State, while competing at home, is another team that could spoil Notre Dame’s chances to repeat, along with the Ivy League duo of Harvard and Princeton. But the greatest competition may come from the Red Storm, who field an extremely talented and experienced team, Bednarski said.

“There will be many great teams there, but St. John’s really stands out,” he said. “It’s a team that is really built for this type of competition. They’ll be tough to beat.”

In the end, how far the Irish go will be determined by how fast the squad’s young fencers grow up, Bednarski said. The team has spent an entire year maturing, but there is no substitute for the crucible of championship competition.

“It is a very high-pressure environment and it will not be easy,” he said. “Not for the coaches and not for the fencers. But if this team can promise anything, it is that we will fight.”

The NCAA championships begin Thursday and last through Sunday in Columbus, Ohio.

Contact Conor Kelly at ckelly17@nd.edu