Notre Dame takes home second-consecutive national title
Charlotte Edmonds | Monday, March 26, 2018
When asked about the key to the success of the fencing team, athletes and coaches repeatedly cited one quality — grit. This determination proved key in the team’s quest to repeat as national champions this past Sunday in State College, Pennsylvania.
Irish head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia said there was never a doubt in the team’s mind that it would win. Their resilience was evident over the four-day competition as they maintained a consistent performance.
Notre Dame fell only one point short of their record-setting team score of 186 last season. This dominant team performance was not without its individual stars, most notably freshman Nick Itkin, who clinched his first individual national championship in foil.
The competition kicked off Thursday with the women’s pool play. Junior foilists Elyssa Kleiner and Sabrina Massialas made it through two of three rounds having only dropped two bouts each. Kleiner finished the day leading all athletes in first with a 12-3 record. Massialas ended the first day in seventh place.
In epee, junior Amanda Sirico turned in a strong 13-2 record, including an undefeated finish in four bouts against top opponents from Columbia and Ohio State. Freshman Dasha Yefremenko also had a strong showing in her debut NCAA championships appearance, contributing three team points.
The day closed with senior Francesca Russo earning a fourth-place seeding in sabre with an 11-4 mark. The defending national champion joined teammate Sirico in going 4-0 against competitors from Columbia and Ohio State. Junior sabreur Tara Hassett rounded out the day in 15th place, having only dropped one bout against the top two teams.
The Irish tied Columbia at the end of three rounds of women’s dueling with a score of 56 points.
The women extended their lead Friday, starting off with a semifinals showdown between teammates Kleiner and Massialas as the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in foil, respectively. Despite having lost to Kleiner in the round-robin pool-play round, Massialas put up a strong fight. Coming in with a nearly identical record, Massialas led 8-7 at the end of the first round. She extended her lead to 15-9 in the second round to punch her ticket to the championship. Kleiner tied for third, earning bronze and her first All-American nod.
Massialas advanced to the finals to face top-seeded Columbia junior Iman Blow. After three periods of close competition, Blow overcame Massialas to win 15-12. The runner-up finish for Massialas marked the junior’s highest place at the NCAA championships after finishing third her freshman year and fifth her sophomore year.
The team’s strong performance carried into epee, where Sirico easily qualified for the semifinals with a 20-3 record in pool play. In the first round of bracket play, she dominated Veronika Ziukova of St. John’s early with a 12-7 lead. Ziukova, however, posted a strong finish, winning five-straight points and forcing overtime, where she defeated Sirico 13-12. This was her second-straight third-place finish.
Russo, the defending national champion, was charged with closing the women’s play in sabre alongside Hassett. After ending the first day in fourth place, Russo slowly climbed her way into the second seed at the start of bracket play. She faced off against Maia Chamberlain of Princeton in the semifinals, where she had a similarly strong start as Sirico, only to be met with an equally strong counterattack where she found herself down 13-8. Despite three quick points scored by Russo, she fell short in the semifinals.
“Once I got to the semifinals, my performance level wasn’t quite as intense or smart as the past year, but I’m still really happy and was able to keep it cool,” Russo said.
Hassett also carried the team’s momentum in the second day, going undefeated and climbing from 15th place to seventh.
As the women’s competition winded down, Notre Dame led Penn State by six with a team score of 95. Four athletes — Massialas, Kleiner, Sirico and Russo — earned first-team All-American honors, as well as Hassett being named as a second-team All-American. Russo joined an elite group of 25 Notre Dame fencers to earn All-American honors four times.
“I was able to leave a mark in any way possible,” Russo said. “Obviously making the finals was definitely the goal … every year I’m hungry. This year was I was focused on winning my bouts for the team.”
Although the women entered the championship ranked No. 1, the men were ranked No. 4, which Russo said contributed to their perception as underdogs.
However, the men appeared every bit as dominant as their teammates in the first two days of competition.
Freshman Nick Itkin and junior Axel Kiefer began Saturday’s pool play finishing in the top four, with Itkin leading the meet with a 12-3 record.
The biggest surprises of the weekend came in the men’s epee. Senior Nicholas Hanahan and sophomore Ariel Simmons blazed their way through the field. Hanahan, in his first NCAA appearance since his freshman year, finished the day in second while his teammate held onto sixth place with a record of 10-5.
Saturday drew to a close with senior sabreur Jonah Shainberg recording a 12-3 record, having only dropped one bout against Ohio State and Columbia. Shainberg began Sunday’s competition in third place, while senior Jonathan Fitzgerald was in 14th place at the end of day one in his third-consecutive NCAA championships appearance.
After besting teammate Kiefer in the semifinals, Itkin’s shining moment came Sunday when he faced off against sophomore Sam Moelis from Columbia, who he had lost to the day prior in round-robin play. The rookie was unfazed and proceeded to clinch the title with relative ease by a score of 15-8.
“From the very beginning, he’s established himself as a tough competitor on the field … [but] we never expected this,” Kvaratskhelia said. “We knew he was good, but even great recruits don’t get to do that well their first year.”
Kvaratskhelia said the national championships are tough even for seasoned competitors, much less freshmen. It’s mind boggling, he added of Itkin’s accomplishment, considering the Los Angeles native won the first individual foil title for the Irish since 2014.
Simmons built on the team’s position from Itkin’s victory by moving into the top epeeist seed to face No. 4 Marc-Antoine Blais of Ohio State. The bout was back and forth until Blais got the last touch to narrowly win 15-14. Hanahan also clinched his first All-American honors with his second-place finish in his final season.
History was made once again in the men’s sabre as Shainberg joined Russo as the 26th four-time All-American in program history.
“My first two years I got 12th, and the last two years I got fifth,” he said. “I think It parallels the team’s success.”
Shainberg credited sabre coach Aleks Ochocki for his development as a fencer and inspiring the team.
“I remember my first two years … we knew we had what it took to win but couldn’t manage to pull it together,” he said. “It eventually happened and as awful as that experience was, it really allowed us to learn from our mistakes.”
This victory marks the first back-to-back victories in program history since the championships have become a combined team result.
Kvaratskhelia said his team cemented its status as one of the top schools and is in the conversation for one of the best teams in Notre Dame history.
He credited the shift in program dynamic largely to the seniors.
“When we recruited Francesca, Jonathan, Jonah and Nicholas we called it a turnaround class,” he said. “They [Russo, Fitzgerald, and Shainberg] were the top recruits in the country in saber, and more importantly, at the time when we were short in sabre. We felt it would serve as a gauge for how the program would go forward. … They delivered to the maximum capacity.”
Shainberg said his classmates have tried to change the culture of the team, and he considers himself lucky to be a part of this dynasty.
The championship is Notre Dame’s 10th in program history, and the first back-to-back title in over 40 years.