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Streak-breaking loss doesn’t deter Irish team

Matt Mooney | Thursday, January 29, 2004

The Notre Dame men’s fencing team finds itself in an unusual position this week – trying to pick up the pieces after a loss. Fourth-ranked St. John’s defeated the Irish on Sunday 18-9, handing the team its first defeat in 90 dual matches. Regrouping will not likely constitute a “Return to Glory” campaign, but whenever streaks fall, the search for answers begins.Ironically, the weakness would be found on one of the team’s greatest strengths, its youth. With many of the freshmen excelling in national and international competitions, the class of 2007 has a very promising future. However, they had very little time to develop. The top four fencers on last year’s team graduated, and freshmen were needed to fill the void. Four rookies immediately stepped into the spotlight on a defending national championship team. As a senior, foilist Matt Castellan finds himself in a mentor position to a very undeveloped team. “It’s probably one of the most talented teams out there but it’s young,” he said. “It’s going to be a continually learning process for the new guys.”Accompanying the learning are growing pains. Coach Janusz Bednarski has tried to ease the transition into collegiate fencing, but he knows that certain elements will always exist with a young team. “A younger team is always unpredictable,” he said. One of the promising young stars of the men’s team, freshman foilist Frankie Bontempo, showed just how mercurial youth can be. Entering Sunday’s competition, Bontempo had fenced his way to a near perfect 10-1 mark. On Sunday he finished with an uncharacteristic 6-9 record. “I lost focus a lot,” Bontempo said. “You really have to have the right mindset that you can beat anybody.”But Bontempo was not the only one who faltered. The team’s unpredictability turned against them while facing a strong St. John’s team. Traditionally a top finisher at the NCAA Championships, Bednarski called the Red Storm “the strongest [men’s] team in the nation at the moment.” On Sunday, the Irish found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.The end of the team’s winning streak drew a lot of attention, marking the statistical end of a three-year reign of dominance. Notable losses like this one can fester, eroding confidence, potentially to reversing the streak in the other direction. However, the upperclassmen are committed to preventing that from happening. Senior Matt Castellan, one of the few upperclassmen, stressed the need to keep the loss in perspective. “This is one loss,” Castellan said. “The ultimate goal is to qualify all 12 fencers to the NCAA’s. A loss to St. John’s isn’t gonna make us say, ‘We’re not gonna win.'”The team consensus seems to be that the weekend was a learning experience. Bednarski wants the negative experience to push his fencers harder. He knows they cannot relax as there are big matchups in the upcoming weeks..”We will have another strong team [Ohio State], which consists of experienced fencers,” Bednarski said. “The response is to practice. We need some improvement in technique, in tactic. How long it takes, we don’t know, but they are working.”Castellan feels that the work will continue with a renewed vigor. “After the meet this weekend, you’re going to see a much more focused team,” he said. “And as the defending national champions, the goal remains the same, loss or no loss. We’re going for the repeat. We’ve done it for so many years, there’s no reason to expect any less. Our goal is to be the best.”