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Fencing

Irish prepare for St. John’s, Philadelphia duals

| Friday, January 17, 2020

The Notre Dame fencing team is set to compete in their second and third meets of the season this weekend. After the Elite Invitational in Philadelphia on Nov. 16, which saw the women’s team post a record of 4-1 and the men post a record of 3-2, the Irish will travel to Jamaica, New York, on Saturday for the St. John’s Invitational and return to Philadelphia on Sunday to compete in the Philadelphia Invitational at the University of Pennsylvania.

The story for the Irish this season is the absence of four top athletes — foilists Nick Itkin and Amita Berthier and epeeists Ariel Simmons and Stephen Ewart — who are taking a year off to train to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia talked about the loss of his top competitors, but said it provides an opportunity for others to step up.

“We have four athletes [missing]. The maximum we can qualify for the NCAA [championship]s is 12, and we are missing the four top athletes for the Olympics, so obviously it’s going to put a little bit of a spin on this situation,” Kvaratskhelia said. “But we’re hoping it gives the others an opportunity to rise to the occasion and perform well. And also we’ve done well the last two recruiting classes that came in here. They’re strong enough now, maybe not to replace those Olympians, but [to] give us a boost to be able to be in the mix to compete for the serious, serious results this year.”

Aside from the four current Irish athletes competing, one former one has already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. Notre Dame class of 2017 foilist Lee Kiefer, the No. 3-ranked foilist in America whose younger brother Axel was the NCAA runner-up last year for the Irish in men’s foil in his senior season, has qualified for Olympic competition. Lee Kiefer was a four-time national champion at Notre Dame and has already competed in the 2012 London Olympics and 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Kendra Osinski | The Observer

Irish junior foilist Joseph Marino competes during the DeCicco duals on Jan. 27, 2019.

Kvaratskhelia shared what it means to the Notre Dame program to have athletes still representing them on the national stage.

“Lee already punched [her] ticket, but … we are thinking that we can have the most ever Notre Dame athletes qualify. We qualified five for Rio and we had five in London; we think the numbers will be higher than that,” he said. “But Lee truly is the trailblazer for all the American fencers, especially our Notre Dame fencers who are hoping to qualify. But we are hopeful that this will be the Olympics that will have the most representatives as a college, and the most representatives for the history of Notre Dame fencers at the Olympics.”

In terms of the current competition for the Irish, it’s made even more difficult by the fact that even more of their top athletes will also be absent in anticipation of the Fencing World Cup.

“The problem with this competition is we will also be missing a few of our top athletes from this year’s team going to the World Cup competitions in France,” Kvaratskhelia said. “So we’ll miss a few of our foil fencers who won’t be there. So again, it just puts another obstacle in our way, because they’re competing for the national team spots and will not be able to make it to New York or Philadelphia.”

Not only will the Irish be depleted, but their competition this weekend includes no slouches.

“They really have to develop the mental game to be tougher and stronger to all the adversity of the competition, because we’ll be facing all the best teams in the country going [this] week,” he said. “The top six out of seven ranked teams will be on our calendar.”

Even so, Kvaratskhelia sees the potential these obstacles hold in allowing the Irish to experiment and gain experience through adversity.

“It’s going to be a character test, most importantly — the character builder for the team,” Kvaratskhelia said. “We’ll have our Olympians back next year, and this should give us that springboard to attack the bigger and better goals along the way the next couple of years. So obviously, it will be a great way to enhance the technical and tactical repertoire, but it especially will be important to develop the character of the team while we’re shorthanded and while we’re missing our Olympians and some of the kids will be travelling to the World Cups.”

As for the significance these matches play for the Irish over the next couple of months, Kvaratskhelia said he believes it will be a nice gauge to allow them to experiment and adapt to their limitations.

“Definitely, [it] will be a great kind of temperature testing where we add in the certain weapons and certain athletes, and what changes do we need to make either way for the entire team — or in terms of weapons concerned, how to alternate the roster to have a better shot to win the ACC championships and the qualifiers and the NCAAs,” he said. “So this will be a great test to see where we are at this point in the season.”

No matter the losses, Kvaratskhelia said has faith in his team and is willing to throw anybody out against the competition.

“Whatever we have in ammunition, we’re just going to use it all,” he said.

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