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Fencers fall to 3rd at NCAA’s

Matt Mooney | Monday, March 29, 2004

WALTHAM, Mass. – The Notre Dame fencing team could hear the footsteps growing closer all season long. And at the NCAA Championships at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., they were finally passed.

The upstart Ohio State Buckeyes ran away with the 2004 national title, dethroning the defending national champion Irish Sunday with a total team score of 194 points. And in the end, the Irish were passed again, failing to hold off a late-charging Penn State team (160 points) to finish third overall with 153 points. St. John’s finished fourth, with a 149 score.

Foilist Forest Walton, who hails from nearby Londonderry, N. H., said the third place result was not something the team expected.

“We’re all kind of surprised,” he said.

The four-day event did not go according to Notre Dame’s plan. After the first day of competition Thursday, Irish coach Janusz Bednarski wanted his fencers to extend their four-point lead to provide a cushion for the attrition-plagued men’s team. But the women could not hold on to the lead, much less maintain it. The slim 63-59 lead the Irish held over Ohio State slowly evaporated throughout the day, and when the last point was scored Friday, the Irish trailed the Buckeyes by one, 97-96.

The Irish men would only contribute a paltry 57 additional points.

After catching the Irish Friday, Ohio State used the start of the men’s competition Saturday to open the floodgates. The combination of a struggling Irish men’s team – too few star performances and too – much talent from Ohio State doomed the Notre Dame efforts from the start.

“I said that there could be ups and downs, and we were in down,” Bednarski said. “With a young team, with emotions, with pressure, it happens, and unfortunately it was really hard to stop it.”

By the end of the day, Ohio State broke away from the pack to hold a comfortable 159-132 lead over Notre Dame. With just three round-robin rotations left for the men, the only issue that remained in doubt was which team would finish second.

The Irish, with one short of the maximum 12 participants, could not compensate for the loss of top foilist Derek Snyder to injury. Snyder broke his hand last week in practice and did not fence in the national championships. Frankie Bontempo, who replaced Snyder as an alternate, finished the tournament with a disappointing 7-16 record.

Bednarski knew his team would be fighting an uphill battle from the start.

“It’s very hard with one less fencer and the replacement of Derek Snyder,” he said, ” but [the result] is not what we really wanted.”

Bontempo, a freshman, was part of a young group that struggled while experiencing the national championship environment for the first time. The freshman sabre duo of Patrick Ghattas and Matthew Stearns, who combined for a sparkling 71-13 record during the regular season, could only muster an even 23-23 record over the weekend. Ghattas failed to post a victory (0-4) against either Ohio State or Penn State.

“I’ve never fenced a competition like this where it’s just one big round of pools,” Ghattas said. “I’ve never had so many difficult bouts back-to-back-to-back. I’m taking it as a learning experience.”

The one youthful exception on the women’s side was freshman sabre Valerie Providenza who finished with an 18-5 record in the round-robin event and won the individual national title.

However, like Ghattas and Stearns, fellow freshman saber Angela Vincent did not fare as well. Vincent, noticeably tired and still feeling the effects of an illness that hospitalized her two weeks ago, finished the tournament with a disappointing 8-15 mark.

But Providenza was not the only one to claim individual accolades.

Alicja Kryczalo won the foil national title for the third time in as many years, making her only the second woman ever to win three or more national titles. She defeated teammate Andrea Ament for the championship. Kryczalo said it was a different experience, facing a teammate in competition.

“We know each other very well because we are fencing each other every day in practice,” she said. “There’s not so much competitiveness, so probably we don’t enjoy it so much.”

Also taking runner-up honors was epeeist Kerry Walton, who won the 2002 national championship.

Michal Sobieraj, the 2003 runner-up, was the only men’s fencer to medal, taking a third place bronze.