Lee Kiefer wins fourth straight title as Notre Dame captures national championship
From start to finish, there was one only program with its name at the top of the leaderboard at the 2017 NCAA championships, and that was Notre Dame.
Throughout the four-day competition, the Irish found themselves outpacing the likes of Ohio State, Columbia, St. John’s and Harvard to notch the program’s ninth national title in program history. And by the end of the weekend, they even had a few individual titles to boast as well.
The men’s competition took place over the first two days, and the Irish were able have enough of an impact to set the tone with the Buckeyes and Lions, who finished in second and third, respectively. Then, the women dominated the event’s final two days to solidify Notre Dame’s place at the top, as senior Lee Kiefer and junior Francesca Russo won individual championships in the women’s foil and sabre, respectively, to lead the Irish to their eventual 25-point cushion by the end.
“Incredible. I’m happy for the kids, most importantly,” Kvaratskhelia said of the victory. “ … They really worked hard. We set the goal in September. … We set the tone and we set the bar very high, and at the end, we got lucky and our kids really performed well from top to bottom.
“ … You can qualify a maximum of 12 athletes, and it takes the effort from all 12 of them to achieve the ultimate goal. But the key was that no one out of the 12 underperformed. Everyone performed pretty much to the highest potential, and the result was we had our largest win over any other team in the last 20 years.”
Although it had no national champions on its side, the men saw five of its six fencers earn All-American distinctions; freshman Ariel Simmons earned first-team honors with his third-place finish in epee, while senior foilists Kristjan Archer and sophomore Axel Kiefer and junior sabreurs Jonah Shainberg and Jonathan Fitzgerald all captured second-team honors with their top-eight finishes.
“They gave us a great cushion to come into,” Russo said of the men’s performance. “I don’t think any of the girls really felt as nervous as we ever did in the past. The guys really outdid themselves, and we couldn’t have won this without the guys doing everything they did the first two days.”
“The boys gave us a lot of confidence,” Lee Kiefer said. “We knew we had the training and we had the talent, and we just had to execute, but I think we all felt like we could really do it, whereas other years it was really just a close battle.”
Then, the second two days were dominated by the women. Sophomore epeeist Amanda Sirico captured the first-team All-American status with her third-place finish, while sophomore Sabrina Massialas finished in fifth in the foil to earn second-team status.
But the true standouts for the Irish on the weekend were Lee Kiefer and Russo. It was Kiefer who secured the team title for the Irish in her bout, but she did not realize she had done so until well after the fact.
“I had no idea what was going on,” Kiefer said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so many people cheering for me’ afterwards, but I wasn’t even fencing anyone that cool. And then, I looked around and I realized what was going on. … There were flags waving around, everyone was hugging each other, some people were crying — it was beautiful.”
And by the end of the day, Kiefer would add another piece of hardware to her collection: a fourth individual NCAA championship title.
“It’s been one of the best weeks of my life,” Kiefer said of her fourth national championship. “But the real victory was just winning this with the whole team. We’ve struggled together all season — highs and lows — so after four years, we finally earned it.”
Russo, not to be outdone, would battle her way to a second individual crown in three years in the sabre completion. She won it after a back-and-forth bout with Penn State’s senior captain, Teodora Kakhiani, as she claimed the final point to break a 14-14 tie and take the crown.
“It’s a really, really cool feeling,” Russo said of winning another individual title. “I was pretty nervous, but I’m really happy with my result, and the team’s result most importantly.”
While Kvaratskhelia was proud of his team as a whole, he was especially proud of the individual accomplishments of Kiefer and Russo over the weekend, which he called historic and a byproduct of their competitive drive.
“History was made: [Kiefer is one of] the only athletes who captured four consecutive NCAA [championships] in Notre Dame history — three in the NCAA fencing history alone,” Kvaratskhelia said. “It’s special, it’s very special. We have a superstar of monumental proportion. We can compare [her] to any others in their craft … and it will not be unfair to tell you that she’s that level.
“And Francesca — two out of three NCAA [championships]. She’s pretty close to following Lee’s footsteps. … They’re the ultimate competitors with an incredible sense of work ethic every single day.”
And while they also were pleased with their individual accomplishments, both Kiefer and Russo said it was the team title that was most important and embodied the team effort that enabled their individual successes.
“The team is everything,” Kiefer said. “We couldn’t get our individual titles without them, so really it just comes back to all the work we put in with each other all season long.”
“The individual part is just kind of like the sweet ending, but the most important — we dedicate our entire season to winning [the team national championship],” Russo said.
And the national championship trophy is an honor the Irish will be able to take pride in for years to come, reminding them of the dominant weekend they had from start to finish.
“It’s an amazing piece of hardware, and we definitely deserved it,” Russo said.
“It’s a beautiful feeling,” Kiefer said. “Everyone this weekend went above and beyond, and it was just amazing watching such beautiful fencing.”