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Fencing

Irish to compete for 3rd-straight national title

and | Wednesday, March 20, 2019

For Gia Kvaratskhelia, this week is familiar territory. In his fifth season with the Irish, championship chasing is like clockwork for the head coach.

Kvaratskhelia, orginially from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, has built his program on the fundamentals, insisting that the work it has done throughout the season will set it up for success in the coming weekend.

“Pressure’s not on us,” he said.

Kvaratskhelia later commented on how he coaches his athletes to avoid the distractions that come with the national stage, instructing them to “keep the temperature low.”

Allison Thornton | The Observer

Irish junior epee Ariel Simmons lunges at his opponent during the NCAA Midwest Regional Championship on March 9.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “When they get on the strip, they really have to be in control of their emotions. The noise, the distraction, in terms of all the talk about defending. … We try to keep everything simple and low key, not to overcoach.”

After qualifying the maximum number of 12 competitors — one of four other schools to do so — Notre Dame is in good position to compete for its third-straight national championship. However, Kvaratskhelia is determined to make sure that his team doesn’t lose sight of the task at hand, understanding it’s a new year and new expectations have to be met.

“Coming down the [final stretch] we’re as prepared as we could be and as healthy as we could wish to be,” he said. “Going in with the attitude that we have to fight for every single touch, nothing is given to us.”

That attitude and determination will be needed against a competitive field of Columbia, Harvard and Penn State — all of which qualified the maximum number of athletes in each weapon — along with a number of other teams that are expected to put up a good fight.

Specifically, the women’s side of the bracket puts Kvaratskhelia and his staff in a unique position, with each weapon featuring a senior and freshman. In foil, senior Sabrina Massialas and freshman Amita Berthier will take the mat. They’ll be joined by senior Amanda Sirico and freshman Miriam Grady in epee and senior Tara Hassett and freshman Kara Linder in sabre.

While the women provide a stark contrast of youth and experience, the men are just as mixed, ranging from a reigning national champion to three first-time competitors.

Sophomore Nick Itkin will look to defend his individual national title, but should expect some competition from teammate Axel Kiefer. Kiefer, a senior, finished tied for third last year while Itkin brought home the gold. Additionally, junior Ariel Simmons will lead the way for the Irish in epee as well as sophomore Stephen Ewart. Rounding out the roster, junior Arsenii Panteleev and freshman Alessandro Contreras will both be making their NCAA debut in sabre.

While some weapons boast multiple former All-Americans and others have garnered less national attention, Kvaratskhelia said he’s seen equal contributions from all six categories throughout the season, and he knows from the past two years that a balanced approach is the key to competing at the highest level.

“Our goal is to peak in the right moment, right time,” he said. “We’ve managed in the last two years to do so. … We’ve shown our best at the end of the season.”

Although it still remains to be seen how these underclassmen perform under the bright lights, Kvaratskhelia maintains that each athletes has the opportunity to be a leader, knowing that they’re all needed for the success of the team. He even quipped that he never knows when a freshman could even win an individual title, a reference to Itkin’s title last year.

“Everyone has to be a leader. You never know what leadership, in terms of production of the [champion]ship,” Kvaratskhelia said.

Just as Kvaratskhelia understands each member of his team — competing and noncompeting — are needed for the team to achieve their goals, he was also quick to acknowledge the contributions he’s received from his supporting staff.

“The reason for my success is my incredible coaching staff,” he said. “We also recruit and develop incredible athletes, so I feel pretty confident who I’m going to be working with. I feel like we for sure have the best coaches in each weapon, and going with them to this battle, I couldn’t be more confident in who I’m working with.”

As the team prepares to open competition in Cleveland this Thursday, Kvaratskhelia is ready for just another day of work. However, come Sunday, if all goes according to plan, he and his team could come away with a shiny prize to wrap up their season.

“We never talked about Championships at all,” Kvaratskhelia said. “We look at every single day as part of the process, part of the development. … Competition at the end of the year is just another one. That’s how we try to address it, that it’s no big deal. If we train hard, we give ourselves a chance every single competition, regardless of the degree of difficulty.”

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