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Irish fall short of third-straight national championship

| Friday, May 17, 2019

Having a top-ranked target on its back for the majority of the season, Notre Dame looked to continue its reign of dominance under head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia by three-peating at the national championship. While the team backed up its title for much of the regular season, a slow start and missed opportunities down the stretch ultimately deprived them from hoisting the gold.

While Kvaratskhelia was certainly disappointed by the team’s third-place finish, he was proud of his team’s perseverance and stability, which he credited with building the prestige of the program.

“Regardless if you win the national championships or you [don’t] win the national championships,” he said, “that means you have enough reserves and have built up enough strength that you are in that position to be one of the top teams. And now arguably we are one of the most stable teams in the last few years on the national scene.”

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Irish sophomore foil Nick Itkin faces off against an opponent during the NCAA regional round at Castellan Family Fencing Center on March 9.

The Irish started the season looking every bit the national title contender they claimed to be, going undefeated through three invitationals. The men’s and women’s team only ceded one and two points, respectively, in the remaining two invitationals through January. The competition heated up in February. At the Northwestern Duals, the women swept the field but the men suffered their first significant hit, losing 3-4. On Feb. 23, the Irish traveled to Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, for the ACC Championship. Both teams avenged their second-place finish last season to claim the conference title.

“We kept the momentum going from the last year going to the early stage of the season, and the transitions for the freshmen were pretty seamless,” Kvaratskhelia said. “What we struggled with, and it’s not making excuses, but we [were] plagued by the injuries throughout the year with our starting lineup kids. … We applied the same tactics, our same kind of strategic preparation for the teams of the previous couple of years, and this team was different. Something moving forward, we’ll learn that we should have, as the coaches and head coach, detected those tangibles and [we’ll] make the kind of necessary changes, even with the injuries, to be able to compete and win the national championships. There’s a lot to learn from the last year.”

At the NCAA Championships in Cleveland on March 21, the Irish struggled out of the gate, finding themselves in fourth place at the end of the first day. However, day two brought some positive takeaways as sophomore Nick Itkin and senior Axel Kiefer claimed first and second in foil, respectively. This was the second-straight title for Itkin who, along with several other teammates, intends on taking next year off to train for the Olympic trials.

Kvaratskhelia said although the absence of stars like Itkin certainly hurts the program’s chances of competing for a national title, he’s focusing on the roster available to him.

“Maybe we’ll have the most athletes take the time for Olympic trials coming up next year,“ he said. “Again, for the athletes that are returning, it will be an opportunity to show their skills and their abilities. And for the coaches, we will have to be really resourceful and crafty and make sure we qualify and we put ourselves in a position that we’ll still have a chance to fight for the nationals next year.”

While the women tried to close the gap on the third day of competition behind solid performances from their freshmen and senior epeeist Amanda Sirico, they remained in third place — trailing Columbia and Penn State — heading into the final day of competition. The Irish ended the championships in third place, with Sirico and freshman foilist Amita Berthier claiming second and third place in their respective weapons. Meanwhile, senior Sabrina Massialas claimed fifth in foil to round out the top-five for Notre Dame.

Kvaratskhelia spoke highly of the senior’s contributions, crediting them with playing a major part in the recent dominance the program experienced.

“We averaged I don’t know how many first-team All-Americans,” he said. “We had four-time [All-Americans]; Axel Kiefer [was] all four years an All-American; Sabrina Massialas, all four years, All-American; Tara Hassett, four-year starter. So this was a solid group who will be absolutely missed because without them there’s no way we have two NCAA championships and a top-four finish. Those guys were the backbone of our success for sure.”

Kvaratskhelia also said this offseason has provided necessary time for critical reflection among his athletes and coaching staff.

“Tighten up all the things, we’ll make sure we are heading into the season a lot better prepared,” he said.

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