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FENCING: Irish women find place among all time greats

Joe Meixell | Monday, March 21, 2005

The whispers have already begun. Some people close to NCAA fencing have already begun making claims that the fencers Notre Dame sent to the NCAA finals are the best group of six women’s fencers on one college team in history.Seeing that women’s sabre was not added as an additional event into the NCAA until 2000, these claims may have some merit.Certainly, the numbers speak for themselves. Among the group of senior foilists Alicja Kryczalo and Andrea Ament, epeeists senior Kerry Walton and sophomore Amy Orlando and sabre sophomore Valerie Providenza and freshman Mariel Zagunis, there are a combined five individual national championships, six NCAA individual second place finishes, 15 All-American awards and an Olympic gold medal – won by Zagunis in Athens this past summer – and all of them have reached the NCAA finals at least once.The group’s greatest accomplishment may have come Saturday and Sunday in this year’s national championships, when they turned a 24-point deficit into a two point victory, including erasing a four-point shortfall heading into the final round, allowing the Irish to edge perennial rival Ohio State 173-171 in the standings to take the program’s seventh gold medal. “We won in the last round when pressure was highest,” head coach Janusz Bednarski said. “I’m really proud of them.”For the three graduating seniors, the team title capped off an amazing four years that included two team national championships, the last coming in 2003. “I’m going to be sad leaving, but it’s a great way to end. I couldn’t ask for more,” Walton said. “I’m very happy with everybody. Alicja and Andrea did excellent today.”The tandem of Kryczalo and Ament may have been the most potent 1-2 punch of any two competitors in the same weapon. Kryczalo, herself a three-time champion, narrowly missed being able to join an elite club of NCAA athletes that have won the same event four times in a row, and Ament was twice a runner-up to her teammate in the finals.”In some things I’m better and in some things she’s better, as a captain, so we kind of share it,” Kryczalo said of her teammate. “We just cooperate very well together.”Sunday, Zagunis and Orlando joined Kryczalo in the finals, marking only the second time that 3 women from the same team have made the championship bout in all three disciplines in the same year, the only other time being when the Irish did it in 2004. Over the course of the year, the six had formed an identity as a unit.”I think we work really well together, and we’re all very strong fencers” Zagunis said.In part because of this, the largest aim for any of them seemed to be winning the team goal.”My job was to win bouts, and I won as many bouts as I could [for the team],” Zagunis said.Those staying on after this year feel somewhat bittersweet, as they will be saying goodbye to three of their close teammates.”It’s actually kind of sad, we’re losing a lot of really great seniors,” Providenza said. “I’m happy we could give them a championship on their way out.”With Providenza, Zagunis, and Orlando coming back next year, the Irish return three fencers who have been named All-American at least once, all of whom reaching the finals at least once, and Providenza having an NCAA title.For Notre Dame, that’s a rebuilding year.