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FENCING: National champions

Eric Retter | Monday, March 21, 2005

HOUSTON – There were a lot of smiles on Sunday afternoon when Katia Larchanka of St. John’s touched Ohio State’s Metta Thompson to secure victory in the pair’s women’s foil bout. Those happy faces all belonged to the men and women of the Notre Dame fencing team, who saw themselves move into sole possession of first place at the first and best time. Moments earlier, senior Irish foilist Alicja Kryczalo defeated Columbia’s Cassidy Luitjen to give the Irish at least a shared title, but with Thompson’s loss, the Irish clinched their seventh national championship and their second in three years, edging Ohio State 173-171.”Overall I’m so happy with everybody. It came down to the wire, and that’s the most exciting way to win,” senior epee captain Kerry Walton said. The Irish qualified 11 out of a possible 12 fencers for the tournament, with only freshman Jakub Jedrkowiak representing Notre Dame in men’s foil, but despite this, the team entered the weekend more than optimistic with regards to their chances to win their first team title since 2003. “As a team, we had really, really high expectations. Every year we come in expecting to win, and especially this year because Ohio State only qualified 11, that was huge for us,” said sophomore sabre Matt Stearns. Stearns joined his four other teammates in competition Thursday and Friday, as the men took to the strips first in the championships. Senior epeeist Michal Sobieraj led the team, going 18-5 in the round robin before beating Ohio State’s Denis Tolkachev and Wayne State’s Marek Petraszek in the semifinals and finals to claim his first individual NCAA title. In his semifinal bout with longtime rival Tolkachev, Sobieraj avenged his 5-4 loss in the round robin, jumping out to a 7-2 lead and cruising to a 15-9 victory. In the finals, Sobieraj again took an early lead, going up 9-4. However, Petraszek fought back to make it tense, closing the scoring to 14-13 before Sobieraj scored the final touch to claim his victory.”There aren’t too many surprises between me and Marek. We’ve fenced each other for the last seven or eight years and know each other pretty well,” Sobieraj told und.com.Notre Dame head coach Janusz Bednarski was not surprised by Sobieraj’s success.”I expected that Michal would be winner because I know that he had a strong drive to do this,” he said. In victory, Sobieraj closes out his career as a four-time All-American and leaves Notre Dame with a 68-24 record in the NCAA championship round-robin, third best in the school’s men’s fencing history behind sabre Mike Sullivan and foilist Ozren Debic. However, Sobieraj was not the only Notre Dame men’s fencer to make it to the championship bout, marking the first time since 2000 that two Irish men’s fencers have made the finals. Sophomore sabre Patrick Ghattas also made it to the finals, where he fell to Serjay Isayenko of St. John’s. Ghattas entered the semifinals as the No. 4 seed, taking the final slot by way of a +46 touch differential after his 18-5 round-robin record put him in a 3-way tie for third with Harvard’s Tim Hagamen and three-time All-American and 2004 Olympian Jason Rogers from Ohio State, the latter of which was left out in the cold after ending up with only a plus-44 touch differential. Adam Crompton, the Buckeyes’ other sabre and two-time defending champion, also failed to make the cut, finishing in seventh place after going 17-6.Ghattas’ semifinal bout with Penn State’s Franz Boghicev was the sequel to one of the most intense round-robin bouts of the first two days. When the two first met, Boghicev seemed to be on his way to a rout, taking a quick 4-0 lead, but Ghattas battled back to tie the score at four before Boghicev registered the final touch to win.When they met again, Ghattas held on to a slim 9-8 lead before finding his rhythm and winning the bout 15-10.”Initially in the pools I was losing 4-0, then I kind of figured it out that he was just hitting to my hand every time, so I adjusted and came back 4-4 but he scored the last touch,” Ghattas said. “In the finals, I felt real confident after that 4-0 run in the pools. I knew I had a real good chance of beating him.”The championship bout with Isayenko again proved to be one of role reversals, this time working out against Ghattas as Isayenko bounced back from a 5-0 shutout to capture the title. The bout was close from beginning to end, but after losing the lead and going down 5-4, Ghattas never regained it and fell 15-12.”Being up there in front of everyone, it’s so hard to stick to your game plan, because there’s so many outside factors that come into play,” he said. “I knew what to do but couldn’t do it because of all these things.”In the men’s foil final, Ohio State’s Boaz Ellis easily triumphed over Gabriel Sinkin of New York University to claim his second title in as many years.While missing out on the finals, two other Notre Dame fencers, Stearns and Jedrkowiak, also performed well enough to be named All-Americans. Stearns went 14-9 to finish in 10th place, and Jedrkowiak’s 15-8 record was good enough for a seventh-place finish. Sophomore Aaron Adjemian rounded out the Irish contingent, going 5-18 on the weekend.Notre Dame went 11-17 in the men’s division against their major rivals, going 4-6 versus Ohio State and 5-5 and 2-6 against St. John’s and Penn State, respectively.As Friday’s events unfolded, the championship still seemed to be a viable option.”[Ohio State] qualified six guys but only five girls, so we felt like if the guys could keep it close after [Friday] and we weren’t too far behind, the girls could pick it up and win a lot of bouts for us,” Stearns said.Although they fenced with one man less than Ohio State and St. John’s, the men did keep the score relatively close, and when the women began Saturday afternoon, the Irish were in fourth place and trailed leader Ohio State 94-70.”Ohio escaped us, so we have to chase them, but they didn’t escape so far that we will feel as we are lost. We have simply to make up 24 bouts on Ohio [State],” Bednarski said Friday. It will not be easy, but we will try.”When the women’s team began their tournament, they did better than try, and the Buckeyes’ lead quickly began to erode. Four Irish fencers recorded 10 or more wins in Saturday’s 14 bout action, as Zagunis and sabre partner sophomore Valerie Providenza went 13-1 and 10-4, respectively, while the senior foil tandem of Kryczalo and Andrea Ament combined for respective records of 12-2 and 11-3, helping to trim Ohio State’s lead from 24 to 13 by the end of the afternoon.Coming into the arena Sunday, the team seemed to sense that they were on the verge of doing something great.”Today was shorter than yesterday. There were less bouts so we knew that everyone counted, every single bout, every single touch counted,” Walton said. “We were all pumped up coming in.”Notre Dame’s momentum continued into throughout the day, with wins coming when they were needed the most. It was truly a team effort Sunday, as the two epees, Walton and sophomore Amy Orlando, who had struggled Saturday, improved drastically and contributed to the Irish run. Orlando, who had been in 11th place when Saturday concluded, finished the round robin in fourth place with a 16-7 overall record, while Walton ended up 11-12.With the epees regaining their form late in the tournament, the Irish blitzed through round 7, going 16-2 combined and turning a 4 point deficit into a 2-point margin of victory.”Finally they woke up, and they start to feel that their bouts are so much important. Adrenaline started working and they went for a victory. They helped us a lot,” Bednarski said.Providenza caught fire on Sunday, going 9-0 on the final day to improve her record to 19-4 and finish the round robin in second place behind Zagunis, who went 21-2, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that she was fighting illness the whole weekend.”[She] was in the hospital the whole night. She was under the IV because she was sick, but it happened that she recovered and now she is number two in the saber,” Bednarski said.Four Irish fencers qualified for a chance to compete further for individual accolades, as Providenza, Zagunis, Kryczalo and Orlando all finished in the top 4 and moved into the semifinals, with the latter 3 winning easily and moving into the finals. While Providenza fell 15-13 to Columbia’s Emily Jacobson, Kryczalo cruised past St. John’s Erzsebet Garay 15-8, and Zagunis and Orlando each won by a score of 15-5, defeating Ohio State’s Siobhan Byrne and Holly Buechel of Penn, respectively.This year marked the second time that a woman’s team had had a competitor in the finals of all three events, as Notre Dame repeated the feat it achieved last year. However, the quartet went 0-4 in the medal bouts, providing a somewhat sour ending to an otherwise red-letter day for the squad.Providenza took a 10-7 lead in the bronze medal match, but fell 15-11 after Byrne went on an 8-1 run to end the bout. Orlando fell behind to Wayne State’s Anna Garina 5-0 and never recovered, losing to the now back-to-back champion 15-6. In the sabre, Zagunis fenced a tight match with Olympic teammate Jacobson, coming back from a 4-1 deficit to knot it up at 8-8 and 10-10, but she was never able to take the lead and lost in her first NCAA final by a score of 15-11.However, the biggest upset of the day came as Harvard freshman Emily Cross was able to defeat Kryczalo, a three-time champion who was trying to join an elite group of 29 NCAA athletes who had been 4-time champions in the same event. The two battled a close, defensive match at first, as Cross took a 3-2 lead into the first break. However, the freshman seemed to figure Kryczalo out after the intermission, stunning everyone by taking eight of the next nine points and going on to take her first championship by a score of 15-5.With their respective finishes of second and seventh place with round robin records of 21-2 and 15-8, Kryczalo and Ament joined Zagunis, Providenza and Orlando to give Notre Dame five All-Americans.While the individual disappointments in the finals ended the day on somewhat of a down feeling, the team’s overall triumph was still cause for pride and became the focal point of the weekend.”I wish I could have fenced better in the last bout against Emily Jacobson,” Zagunis said. “I came to this tournament saying to my self I was just going to do the best for the team that I could.”