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Irish claim first conference title in transition season

| Friday, May 15, 2015

A year ago, Notre Dame was at a crossroads. The Irish concluded their 2014 season with a sixth-place overall finish at the NCAA championships. Twelve-year head coach Janusz Bednarski had retired earlier that season, handing the reigns to long-time assistant coach Gia Kvaratskhelia. The 2015 season represented a fresh but daunting opportunity for a fencing squad featuring a number of incoming freshmen and a number of questions regarding the team’s ability to perform on a national level.

Irish senior sabre Mary Regan (left) moves toward her opponent at the DeCicco Duals at Castellan Family Fencing Center on Feb. 8.Wei Lin | The Observer
Irish senior sabre Mary Regan (left) moves toward her opponent at the DeCicco Duals at Castellan Family Fencing Center on Feb. 8.

Now, with the season concluded, it is clear the team developed just fine under the direction of Kvaratskhelia. The Irish to claimed the first-ever ACC championship in fencing. The team also dominated conference play, going undefeated and finishing first in every category in conference’s inaugural season. Though the season ended with the Irish placing second in the NCAA tournament, falling behind a dominant Columbia squad that earned its 14th national championship in program history, they managed to overcome a great deal of adversity, setting the stage for a continued tradition of success in coming seasons.

Kvaratskhelia said he attributed Notre Dame’s season-long success to the willingness of the its senior leaders to set great examples and accommodate the team’s complicated needs.

“Last year this time, our former head coach gets sidelined with a serious illness,” Kvaratskhelia said. “On top of that, we lose the sabre coach from the staff. We have 21 freshmen flooding the gates as the year starts. Without the senior leadership and those incredible athletes, and the students here, we could not have completed the season with that much success. It speaks of their resilience, their maturity. … They helped us on a daily basis to move our program forward.”

Kvaratskhelia praised in particular the ability of his senior leaders to guide his sabre squad through the first part of the season. In January, the Irish hired assistant coach Samir Ibrahimov to coach the sabres, filling a hole in the coaching staff and creating one of the most formidable and accomplished collegiate staffs in the nation. Prior to January, though, the task of training the team’s many sabres fell to the seniors.

“The first part of the season we did not have a sabre coach. The seniors took the load in terms of doing the warm ups and the drills with the kids alongside the coaches,” Kvaratskhelia said. “When we started competing, they were vocal in directing the freshmen and everyone else to their places, giving them encouragement.”

The Irish upperclassmen, headlined by the likes of Ariel DeSmet, Madison Zeiss and Ashley Severson, among others, also dominated the stripe for most of the season, a fact Kvaratskhelia was quick emphasize.

“I don’t want to single anyone out,” he said. “It truly was a team effort. We had incredible [performers] like Maddie, Ashley, Nicole Ameli. … Those were probably the first folks that came to mind because they were such significant contributors. But it was the entire cohesive landscape of the seniors that directed the team to the right place.”

The Irish finished second in the national tournament in March. Now they spend the summer recruiting, training and competing internationally before beginning their second ACC season this coming fall.

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