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Notre Dame sends 12 fencers to NCAA championships

| Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Following a strong showing at the Midwest regional, Notre Dame will travel to compete in the NCAA championships starting Thursday.

The Irish will send 12 fencers on their behalf to compete for the title, which is the maximum number a program was able to qualify at the regional. Notre Dame is one of four schools who qualified the maximum number, as Columbia, Princeton and St. John’s were all able to do so as well.

Irish head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia said he was pleased with his team’s performance at the qualifier, as it indicates the level of success they can achieve at the NCAA championships.

“Our regular season served as good preparation for regionals,” Kvaratskhelia said. “On the day, our fencers stepped up and performed. In the big picture, it reinforces that our program is a perennial contender for [the NCAA] championships.”

Notre Dame will be sending two fencers in each of the three men’s and women’s events. On the men’s side, the Irish will send senior Garrett McGrath and freshman Darius Zacharakis to compete in epee, sophomores Jonathan Fitzgerald and Jonah Shainberg in sabre and sophomore Virgile Collineau and freshman Axel Kiefer in foil. For the women, Notre Dame qualified senior Catherine Lee and freshman Madeline Antekeier in epee, sophomore Francesca Russo and freshman Tara Hassett in sabre and senior Nicole McKee and freshman Sabrina Massialas in foil.

Qualifying 12 fencers puts Notre Dame at a competitive advantage for the team championship, as every victory an individual fencer earns adds one point to the team’s total for the event, with the title being awarded to the team with the most points at the end of the competition. Kvaratskhelia said his team knows what it has to do to come away with a title against a strong field.

“To win at NCAAs, every squad, every fencer needs to contribute,” Kvaratskhelia said. “If one person falters, it puts pressure on everyone else to make it up. … Every year is different in regards to the competition. Clearly, our main rivals are the other teams with 12 fencers: Columbia, Princeton and St. John’s. At the same time, other schools such as Ohio State, Penn State, Harvard and Penn will be very tough.

“We know our strengths and vulnerabilities, and those of our rivals. … It’s about execution.”

Individually, the women will compete first in the event Thursday and Friday and will be followed by the men Saturday and Sunday. Kvaratskhelia said he thinks Kiefer and Massialas are in good spots to compete for individual titles, while the program’s only reigning individual champion competing this year, Russo, has a tough field ahead for her.

“Axel Kiefer and Sabrina Massialas are serious contenders for the title,” Kvaratskhelia said. “While the NCAA is a unique event, once it gets to the final four, it becomes familiar territory for them — 15-touch bouts.

“As for [Russo] repeating, it won’t be easy; there’s lots of competition. She’s up to the challenge.”

The six freshmen Notre Dame qualified for the event will not be the only fencers who have no experience at the NCAA championships: Lee and McKee, two of the team’s senior leaders, will also be competing at this stage for the first time. Kvaratskhelia said he’s especially proud of them this season and expects them to perform at the same level they have all year.

“Catherine and [Nicole] have been fantastic captains and leaders this year, on and off the strip,” Kvaratskhelia said. “They’ve been the rocks on which two young weapon squads have anchored themselves, and have delivered great results. It’s great for them to finally have the chance to represent Notre Dame on the big stage.

“With that comes a unique knowledge that this is it. This may be Axel’s and Sabrina’s first of four NCAAs, if we’re lucky. But for Catherine and [Nicole], it gives them that extra motivation to put everything into it.”

Kvaratskhelia said the team has had a successful season thus far, but its true measure of this year will be this weekend. With that in mind throughout the last week of practice, the Irish are as ready as they can be for the event, he added.

“We’ve had a great week of rest, training, and mental preparation,” Kvaratskhelia said. “We’re ready for NCAAs.”

The Irish will take the strip in the NCAA championships starting Thursday at Gostman Center in Waltham, Massachusetts.

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About Benjamin Padanilam

Ben is a senior and The Observer’s former Editor-in-Chief, now serving as its interim Sports Editor. He is in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) and also pursuing minors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and Business Economics. He hails from Toledo, Ohio, and has enjoyed the few highs and many lows of being a Cleveland sports fan.

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