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Fencing:Buckeyes spoil NCAA Championship dreams

Joe Meixell | Monday, March 17, 2008

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Notre Dame coach Janusz Bednarski knew something – or, rather, someone – had to give.

Ohio State had taken an early lead Thursday in the NCAA Championships, but Notre Dame stormed back Friday and was within three bouts of the Buckeyes after two of the event’s four days.

The Irish seized the momentum and took the lead Saturday with the beginning of the men’s competition, only to hand control back over to the host Buckeyes by that afternoon.

An emotional start to the final rounds early Sunday then made Notre Dame seem ready to parry and riposte with favored Ohio State.

The teams dueled for position, but, just as Bednarski suspected would happen, someone eventually gave.

Unfortunately for the Irish, it was them.

Ohio State tore through its opponents, Notre Dame faltered and the Buckeyes captured the national title with a decisive 185-176 edge over the freshman-laden Irish.

“Our loss today – I will say it is not a loss,” Bednarski said. “I will say it shows where we are. We are the second best team in the nation. How long it takes us to be first, that is the question.”

For this Irish team, as Bednarski hinted, anything short of a national title is at least a disappointment – even for the squad with freshmen occupying seven of its 12 spots in the NCAA Championships.

Still, the Irish had their successes.

Freshman Sarah Borrmann captured the individual title in women’s sabre, and sophomore Kelley Hurley won gold in women’s epee.

Borrmann won 18 of her 23 pool bouts to finish in the top four and advance to the two-round tournament for the individual crown. There, she defeated Wayne State’s Karolina Budna in the semifinal and Ohio State’s Siobhan Byrne in the championship bout.

“Getting to the top four was nerve-racking,” the freshman said. “After I made the top four, I was just like, ‘I got this far; no point in being nervous now.'”

Hurley, the 2007 national runner-up, erased a two-touch deficit in the final nine seconds of her bizarre semifinal bout against Ohio State’s Alexandra Obrazcova to advance to the title contest.

The referee issued yellow-card warnings for passivity to each of the fencers in the second of three 3-minute periods. With the score tied in the third period, the referee once again found the fencers to have violated the rules meant to encourage action and, according to national fencing rules, sent the bout into a one-minute final period.

Hurley won the draw for priority in that period – meaning if the score remained tied at the end of the minute of action, she would earn the victory. But Obrazcova took a 7-5 lead and held it there when there was a stoppage of action with nine seconds remaining. After the referee resumed the bout, Hurley closed to 7-6 with three seconds left and tied it at 7-7 with only one second remaining. When time ran out with the score knotted, Hurley advanced to the final.

She then beat Reka Szele of St. John’s to capture the title.

The tournament began Thursday with 14 bouts for all 72 fencers in the three women’s draws. Ohio State raced out to a strong lead, but Notre Dame chipped away Friday behind Hurley’s near-perfect performance.

The sophomore lost her first three bouts on Thursday but got off to a quick start Friday – literally. Her teammates woke her up at 8:15 a.m. – an hour after her alarm was supposed to wake her – and she scrambled to make the team bus to Ohio State’s French Field House.

For Hurley, that was quite all right.

“I felt so much better with an extra hour of sleep,” she said.

By Friday afternoon, Ohio State led Notre Dame 101-98, and Columbia was a distant third with 82 pool bout victories.

Irish junior Adrienne Nott finished fourth and freshman Hayley Reese was 11th in foil. Fellow freshman Ewa Nelip took the bronze medal and classmate Eileen Hassett was fifth in women’s sabre.

Notre Dame erased Ohio State’s lead early Saturday, and the teams exchanged the lead much of the afternoon.

When Sunday arrived, the Buckeyes clung to their two-bout lead.

Ohio State’s two male epeeists – Jason Pryor and Sean Harden – were in a group of three with Penn’s Benjamin Wieder. That trio faced the trio of Irish senior Greg Howard, Irish junior Karol Kostka and eventual individual champion Slava Zingerman of Wayne State in Sunday’s first round.

The Irish and the Buckeyes evenly split their matches against each other, but Notre Dame entered the lead thanks to Zingerman’s victories over both Ohio State epeeists and the wins of Howard and Kostka over Wieder.

The Irish contingent in attendance – including fencers who didn’t qualify and the women who had finished competing – set off a ruckus with loud chants and hollers that drew a near deafening retort from the Buckeye squad, three score strong.

The reaction to those early bouts paralleled the reality of the fencing: Notre Dame could strike early, but this was Ohio State’s day, and the Buckeyes would take control.

Ohio State stormed back and separated itself over the next two rounds from the Irish. The Buckeyes’ surge – along with Notre Dame’s inexperience – gave Ohio State the decisive margin for the national title.

“Our team didn’t stand the pressure that they are getting in the lead now,” Bednarski said. ‘They couldn’t finish.”

At 11:47 – little over an hour after Notre Dame’s jubilant start to the finale – Pryor clinched the title for the Buckeyes with a win in epee.

Howard and Kostka both finished with 13 victories, but Howard earned eighth place – and second-team All-American honors – thanks to his edge over Kostka in overall touch differential, known in fencing as the “indicator.”

Irish freshman Barron Nydam earned sixth and junior Billy Thanhouser took 13th in men’s sabre. Freshman Steve Kubik took eighth in men’s foil, and classmate Zach Schirtz was 11th in that event.

“It was a very tough competition,” said Bednarski, who admitted to hiding his emotions during the final two days to set a cool example for his team. “One of the toughest I’ve had in my life.”

Total Points

Ohio State 185, Notre Dame 176, Columbia 158, Penn State 155, St. John’s 145, Harvard 101.