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Notre Dame set to kick off season at Elite Invitational in Philadelphia

| Friday, November 15, 2019

One of Notre Dame’s most dominant athletic programs is set to begin its season Saturday at the Elite Invitational in Philadelphia. Head fencing coach Gia Kvaratskhelia and his team will travel to the TSE Center to face off against a number of teams including North Carolina, Ohio State, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Air Force and Penn.

After winning back-to-back national titles in 2017 and 2018, the Irish finished third in 2019, behind champion Columbia and runner-up Penn State. They did finish last season with a number of individual accolades, including an individual national championship for then-sophomore foilist Nick Itkin and silver and bronze medals for graduate student epeeist Amanda Sirico and then-freshman foilist Amita Berthier, respectively.

However, things have changed significantly for Kvaratskhelia’s crew as Itkin and Berthier are two of four key athletes — along with epeeists Arie Simmons and Stephen Ewart — who have taken a year off from collegiate fencing to train and hopefully qualify for the Olympics.

While still early in the preparation period, Kvaratskhelia said the four Olympic hopefuls have showed promise in their training.

“In terms of their performance, Nick is really having a great season after winning the North American cup,” Kvaratskhelia said. “He finished top-32 in the World Cup so he’s in the top-three in the U.S. point standings. Amita has won one World Cup — satellite World Cup — and finished third in the second so she’s improving her qualification chances. As far as the boys, they’re starting their season literally, you know the World Cup is in the next couple of weeks.”

Despite having earned the reputation of dominating the sports and historically landing key recruits, the loss of these four leaders is definitely felt this season.

“We have a very young team. Amanda Sirico is the only athlete on the entire roster who has been tapped for an NCAA championship, so this is a completely new experience for us,” Kvaratskhelia said. “The last four years we had a veteran team but a lot of kids graduated as well as Olympic hopefuls who took the year off so we’re starting from scratch. I wouldn’t say this is the rebuilding year because we still have very strong athletes overall depth wise. We’re very happy with level of preparation. We just have to see how we fare with the competition at the beginning of the year.”

Saturday’s competition is the only one of the semester before things kick into full gear in January. According to Kvaratskhelia, the Elite Invitational will serve as a good litmus test to evaluate where the team is at going forward.

“It’s more of a testing ourselves rather than opposition out there — how do we … deal with anxiety?” he said.

He followed by adding that this team is so young and relatively inexperienced that leadership could come from a number of different athletes.

“The athletes who do not anticipate being great contributors could step up and do it. So just looking from 10,000 feet down as of right now, and then we’ll start narrowing down the focus as we move deeper into the season,” Kvaratskhelia said. “ … Last couple of competitions we’ve had few really strong finishes at the national competitions. So that gives us the kind of indication that those particular athletes could be ready, like [senior foilist] Morgan Partridge, [who] had a great finish in the open competition two weeks ago in Kansas City. [Sophomore sabre] Kara Linder, has been doing really well. [Sabre] Jared Smith, who is a sophomore — he’s showing that glimpse of greatness that he could really elevate his game. He was third out of almost 250 fencers couple weeks ago.”

Saturday’s competition will be telling for Kvaratskhelia in terms of strategizing for the remainder of the season, but he’s confident that this team is fully capable of competing at the high level.

“We still have formidable athletes on a nationally known [level]. They’ve done really well in the national events and even almost qualified or they’re alternate going into the NCAAs the last couple of years,” Kvaratskhelia said. “We just want to see how well they fare against the competition the beginning of the year.”

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