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Keifer, Russo capture individual championships for Notre Dame

| Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Though the Irish did not return to South Bend with the championship trophy they desired, they did bring home a number of individual accolades as well as a renewed confidence in their program’s place alongside the blue bloods of collegiate fencing.

Notre Dame concluded its weekend at the NCAA Fencing Championships in Columbus, Ohio, a mere nine points behind first-place Columbia, which brought home its 14th national title in the program’s long history. Though the Irish did not manage to claim the top team honor, they made waves with a number of impressive performances – some expected, some surprising – during their time at Ohio State this past weekend.

Sophomore epeeist Eva Niklinska fights during the DeCicco Duals on Feb. 9 at the Castellan Family Fencing Center.Emma Farnan | The Observer
Sophomore epeeist Eva Niklinska fights during the DeCicco Duals on Feb. 9 at the Castellan Family Fencing Center.

Irish head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia led the team to a third-place overall finish in his first year at the helm of the program. He spoke to the tenacity of his combined squads after Sunday’s events.

“Overall we’re disappointed with the [team] result,” Kvaratskhelia said, “But we are very proud and very happy with the quality of the fencing and the character and resilience that our team displayed.”

That resilience proved particularly valuable this past weekend, when the Irish found themselves paced for an out-of-character eighth place finish halfway through the four-day-long competition. Two days of exceptional fencing, including above .500 records for five of the six Irish fencers competing in the latter half of the tournament, rocketed the Irish into third place.

“The first day was a surprise when we underperformed,” Kvaratskhelia said. “On the other hand, when you analyze broadly where we were after the first day, that outcome could have been possible due to inexperience.”

Indeed, four of the six athletes to compete in the first day of the tournament were freshmen with no championship experience. Kvaratskhelia’s team took the aftermath of the first day as an opportunity, though, and used it as motivation for a stellar conclusion to the bouts, he said.

“After the first day we knew that we would only get better, knowing that we had an experience accomplished team in the women ready to start the climb,” Kvaratskhelia said.

The success of that climb had a lot to do with the team’s senior leadership, Kvaratskhelia said. Graduate student and former national champion Ariel DeSmet paced the Irish men’s squad with an impressive 16 wins in 23 bouts, earning him a share of the bronze medal in men’s foil. Senior Madison Zeiss, competing in the same class as teammate and eventual champion, Irish junior Lee Kiefer, won 16 bouts of her own.

Kvaratskhelia sung the praises of Zeiss’ senior leadership as well as her tandem record with Kiefer over the past three years — an effort so dominant that it prompted a “huge thank you” from her coach following the tournament.

“The last three years they have been the most dominant duo on the national scene,” he said. “Madison and Lee over the last three years as a duo together won more bouts than any other weapons in either gender together on average. What she has done, alongside Lee, has been unprecedented on the national scale.”

Kiefer herself earned her third individual national championship in as many years for the Irish with a 15-13 victory over Columbia’s Margaret Yu. According to Kvaratskhelia, she plans to take the coming academic year off to prepare for qualifying to represent the United States in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.

“You know, when you have someone [like Lee] — we expect all of our star fencers to give us 15 wins. She averages 20,” Kvaratskhelia said. “She has won 98 percent of her bouts for three years. There’s no higher value than having that superstar who contributes every year to the maximum and gives us that confidence moving forward.”

As bright as Lee’s career with the Irish has been thus far, freshman Francesca Russo has only just begun to establish herself as an Irish fencing mainstay. This past weekend, the New Jersey native upset two higher-seeded opponents to win her first national championship in women’s sabre. After the tournament, Russo described her first year as an Irish fencer.

“It’s been a difficult year,” Russo said. “Between trying to balance fencing for Notre Dame, the U.S. and my grades, nothing was easy and nothing was handed to me. However, fencing for Notre Dame has been a tremendous help and there’s nothing like the support that comes out of this school, whether it being on the strip or in the classroom. It’s an honor to fight for such an amazing group of people as well.”

Russo admitted she did not anticipate being in the final round at all.

“To be honest, I didn’t even think I’d make it to the top four today,” she said. “I was just happy to be there. When I fenced [Penn State freshman] Karen Chang [in the final], who is an ex-student of [Irish sabre and assistant] coach Samir Ibrighimov, my mind was calm and clear and I knew exactly what I needed to do.”

To even get to Chang, though, Russo had to face top-seeded women’s sabreuse and defending champion Adrienne Jarocki of Harvard. Russo advanced to the championship with a 15-12 victory over the defending champion, where she defeated Chang 15-5.

“I felt confident facing Adrienne despite the fact that she was the No. 1 seed,” she said. “I just felt like I had nothing to lose. I was just excited to be representing the Irish for the first time at NCAAs and tried to do my best to make up for our [team] loss that day.”

In the aftermath of the tournament, the Irish are left disappointed but nonetheless determined; Kvaratskhelia said he knows that this is a young squad, and there is a great deal of work left to be done. For a program as prolific as Notre Dame’s, the notion of an offseason does not exist, Kvaratskhelia said.

“A few of our athletes will be representing us at the world junior championships next week and will continue training as is,” Coach Kvaratskhelia said of the team’s plans in the coming days. “We’ll move more towards conditioning practices towards the end of the semester.”

Kvaratskhelia smiled as he reflected on the season, his first at the helm of an Irish fencing program that has grown a great deal over the course of the past few years and looks to be on an even loftier trajectory in future seasons.

“We are really proud of our athletes. We always have a standard of high performance – that standard is still there, and we will continue to push the envelope for years to come.”

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