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Fencing: Young team finishes fourth at NCAAs

Thornton, Jack | Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Strong individual performances put Notre Dame in title contention at this weekend’s National Championship in Houston, but the Irish could not overcome the taltented, crowded field.

Led by sophomore sabre Mariel Zagunis and junior sabre Patrick Ghattas, Notre Dame finished fourth overall with 152 points, 13 behind champion Harvard. The Crimson were followed by Penn State (159 points), Ohio State (155), Notre Dame, Columbia (152) and St. John’s (148).

“This competition showed the place we hold in the nation in reality,” head coach Janusz Bednarski said. “During the season we competed well in the format of three fencers per weapon but when you have to compete with two fencers, we had some weak points.”

The format of the tournament called for a maximum of two fencers per weapon per team competing in 23 five-touch round-robin bouts. The top four seeds then participated in a direct elimination round which had no effect on the team scoring.

The Notre Dame women opened the tournament March 17 with 50 points, enough to put the team in third place behind Penn State (59) and Columbia (52). Bolstered by strong performances from junior sabre Valerie Providenza and the freshmen duo of foil Addi Nott and epee Madeleine Stephan, Notre Dame climbed into second on the second day of competition.

Still, St. Patrick’s Day belonged to Zagunis.

After finishing fourth in the round-robin, the Olympic gold medalist rallied from a12-6 deficit to defeat Columbia’s Emma Baratta 15-14 before dispatching Olympic teammate and friend Emily Jacobson of Columbia.

“I knew exactly what I needed to do to beat [Jacobson] so I didn’t give her any room to breathe and just went out, got ahead form the start and kept the lead,” Zagunis said.

The Championship bout was a rematch of last year’s final, which Jacobson won 15-11.

“Last year wasn’t such a good bout versus her so this year I was ready to make up for that,” Zagunis said.

For the men, Ghattas gave the Irish a standout kickoff Saturday. Ghattas went a remarkable 14-0 in five-touch bouts, earning a standing ovation.

“One of the keys to my success this weekend is that I have been working hard in my conditioning and I think that helped me throughout the competition,” said Ghattas, who was voted men’s sabre of the year by the U.S. Fencing Coaches Association.

“[Ghattas’s] performance was excellent,” Bednarski said. “He is supposed to be first because of his actions and level of performance throughout the tournament … Matt Stearns fenced very well also, even though he is less experienced.”

Notre Dame ended March 18 with 127 points, just four off the pace of first-place Harvard.

Ghattas continued his success March 19 with a dramatic 15-13 see-saw victory over 2004 U.S. Olympian Jason Rogers in the semi-final before losing to his Ohio State teammate Adam Crompton 15-9 in the final.

“Matt [Stearns] told me to slow down and not rush so much, I needed to take slower steps and stay focused,” Ghattas said of his bout against Rogers.

Despite Ghattas and Stearns’s efforts, Notre Dame fell out of contention for the title and finished fourth.

“I had talked to the team about this earlier – about how hard it is to win a national championship and also to repeat,” Ghattas said. “You saw that this weekend. There are so many good teams now and they all felt the pressure to try and win.”

With his second-place finish, Ghattas earned his third NCAA All-American honors while teammates Stearns and sophomore foil Jakub Jedrkowiak finished 11th and eighth, respectively, to earn their second All-American honors.

In addition to Zagunis’ first-place finish, three other Notre Dame women took home All-American awards. Nott and Stephan both finished sixth in their respective weapons, while Providenza took seventh in sabre.

“Addi and Madeleine were very composed and focused throughout the tournament,” Bednarski said. “It’s such a challenge to do that as freshmen and they gave us a chance to be in competition for the National Championship.”