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Fencing

Notre Dame finishes third at NCAA Championships

| Tuesday, March 26, 2019

After struggling to find its groove in the first two days of competition, Notre Dame fell short of a comeback in the second half of the weekend on their quest to secure a third-straight NCAA title.

Opening in Cleveland last Thursday, the men looked to hang in with a crowded field of Columbia, Penn State and Harvard. While sophomore Nick Itkin and senior Axel Kiefer dominated foil, each winning 12 of their 15 bouts on day one, they struggled to see production from their teammates in epee and sabre, none of whom cracked the top-15. In what head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia described as “probably a record-setting performance,” Itkin and Kiefer contributed 24 of the team’s 49 day-one points. As Itkin and Kiefer finished the day in fourth and fifth place, respectively, they advanced to day two — where they eventually met in the finals.

Kvaratskhelia said having both athletes qualify for the finals allowed his team to be the most relaxed they’ve ever been, knowing that they’d secured gold and silver for the team competition.

“Axel and Nick, they provided an incredible 1-2 punch,” Kvaratskhelia said. “They have great chemistry, both having won their semifinal match — Axel’s more dramatic than Nicks — but how can you chose?”

Allison Thornton | The Observer

Irish junior epeeist Ariel Simmons competes in the NCAA Midwest Regional Championships on March 9 at the Castellan Family Fencing Center.

The sophomore managed to defend his individual title, separating himself from the upperclassmen after a 8-6 standoff to claim the 15-6 victory.

“He’s just building his legacy here,” Kvaratskhelia said of Itkin. “Two time, back-to-back individual championships. … The future is bright for Nick.”

Rounding out the men’s competition, junior Ariel Simmons and sophomore Stephen Ewart finished 11th and 21st in epee. Both Simmons and Ewart, along with Itkin and freshman eepist Amita Berthier, have announced they’ll be taking a year off to train to qualify for the Olympics, returning to the University in 2020.

Although Kvaratskhelia acknowledged the challenges his program faces in the coming year, he said the nature of fencing — largely an individual sport — prepares him for the constant changes among his roster.

“We’re accustomed to that. Our teams have several duties,” he said. “First and foremost, be apart of Notre Dame fencing, as well as … to make the Olympic level, world teams, etc. We’ve been doing that for a long time, trying to support whatever aspirations they might have.”

Returning to the competition on Saturday, the women took over, looking to claw their way back from a 12-point deficit. Senior Sabrina Massialas and Berthier took the mat, claiming seventh and second place, respectively. Berthier proved unfazed by the big stage in her NCAA debut, soaring into second place after dropping two bouts in the first round. Meanwhile, the Irish continued to find momentum from senior epeeist Amanda Sirico, who finished atop the standings in pool play on Saturday. The senior went 3-1 against competitors from Harvard and Columbia, alongside freshman teammate Miriam Grady, who turned in a 14th-place finish in her first day. Finally, both freshman Kara Linder and senior Tara Hassett finished just outside the top 10 to help the Irish draw within eight points of first-place Columbia.

With one final chance to snatch that illustrious third-straight title, the six Notre Dame women returned to the Wolstein Center on Sunday. Berthier fell behind early against Columbia’s Sylvie Binder, who claimed the first match 12-7. With her back against the wall, the freshman looked to force a tie-breaking dual, but fell narrowly short, losing 15-12 to the eventual national champion.

“She was quite composed, she lost to an eventual national champion, but there’s no shame, she was outstanding,” Kvaratskhelia said of Berthier.

Her third-place finish was followed closely by Massialas, who earned her fourth-straight All-American nod — making her the the 30th member of the program to win all four years — with a fifth-place finish.

Kvaratskhelia said although he was disappoint for Massialas that she was unable to clinch a title, he was proud of her for her efforts, solidifying herself as a program legend.

“What a monstrous performance,” he said. “Three straight years, she’s won 20, 20 and 19 matches. … I’m having a hard time comparing her to anything. She was one touch away from validating with the championship title.”

The women continued to post strong showings behind Sirico’s runner-up performance. Meanwhile, Linder took eighth place in sabre, earning herself second-team All-American honors. Grady and Hassett also had respectable showings, claiming 15th and 11th place and second-team All-American honors in their respective events.

Despite closing the gap to eight, the team was unable to build on their momentum, finishing their season in third place with 165 points, behind Columbia and Penn State, who finished with 178 and 166 points, respectively.

“They knew what they were down for, what kind of effort we needed from our athletes to pursue that title,” Kvaratskhelia said. “Every time we got momentum going, either the opposition accelerated or we just stalled. We never found the kind of stride we wanted to. … Even our girls giving us a monstrous performance all across the board, something was missing, and that’s something we really have to identify during the offseason and solve it for the future.”

Going forward, Kvaratskhelia said he plans to spend the offseason reflecting on the final stretch of this season.

“What caused our shortcomings? We’ve just really got to go back to the competition itself and the preparation period,” he said. “Could we have done something different? Or was it just the reality of the situation that we were not the best team?”

Kvaratskhelia also noted the many injuries his team sustained throughout the season and it’s effect this past weekend. However, he ultimately said he, as head coach, assumes the responsibility for the team falling short of their goal this past weekend.

“There’s no excuses for losing,” Kvaratskhelia said. “I give a lot of credit for Columbia. They showed up and they showed how hard they could compete. … The only reason we lost was ourselves. We started slow and it was not enough to come back after that. We did not get off to the right start in our first two days. When the men started, the men’s foil kept us alive, but if we had to do it over again, we’d probably do it a little differently. … It mostly comes down to me as a head coach. The team was not ready those first couple days. I take full responsibility for that.”

Two days removed from their third-place finish, Kvaratskhelia has had time to reflect on the team’s accomplishment this past season and is ready to continue to build the program going forward.

“I’m very, very proud of our kids,” Kvaratskhelia said. “Really, they won a stunning amount of matches and we competed all across. … We won the ACC Championship, it’s just disappointing that we fell short in the most important time of our season.”

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