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Depleted-yet-veteran Irish see season end as teams peak

| Friday, May 15, 2020

It was not a typical year for the Notre Dame fencing program — even before their season was cut short by a pandemic. From the outset, they had to overcome the loss of some of their best athletes, but not because of graduation. Rather, several took a year off to train for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, previously scheduled for the summer of this year.

Head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia discussed the difficulty of coming to grips with the key absences.

“We took a while to adjust to the new reality,” he said. “Superstars or the possible first-team All-Americans; three of them were All-Americans [a few] years back. … So missing the starting lineup athletes was hard for the team, and [it] took us a couple of competitions to find the ways to fill that void and the gap.”

Additionally, graduate student epeeist Amanda Sirico, whom Kvaratskhelia referred to as the team’s leader, would have taken a gap year had she not gotten injured. Despite the injury, Sirico decided to compete for the Irish sooner rather than later and was not at full strength as a result.

The team opened their season in November at the Elite Invitational in Philadelphia, followed by two January meets at St. John’s in New York and the University of Pennsylvania. Over the three meets, the Irish women went a combined 10-5, while the men salvaged a 7-8 record despite an 0-5 showing at St. John’s.

Even so, Kvaratskhelia said the team coalesced leading up to the annual DeCicco Duals hosted at Notre Dame.

“We did not have, as we anticipated, a good result in the Elite [Invitational] and continued with the St. John’s Invitational,” he said. “But somewhere in January, we got the traction, and the kids realized that everyone had to contribute for that missing piece, and the team completely had turned around.”

Both Irish units, men’s and women’s, proceeded to go undefeated over the next two meets, the DeCicco and Northwestern Duals, with the men stretching their streak to three at the Duke Duals.

“From the DeCicco Invitational to the Duke [Duals] to Northwestern, I think we went 30-2. Including the ACCs, our record was 30-2,” Kvaratskhelia said. “The coaches and players found the ways to utilize every asset at our disposal, and kids really stepped up emotionally. And then on, we looked like a championship contender.”

Erin Fennessy | The Observer
Irish senior epeeist Julia Barry competes at the ACC Fencing Championships on Feb. 23.

As the Irish rolled to victory in the ACC Championships, sweeping all individual titles and finishing in first as a team in both the men’s and women’s divisions, what looked to be the start of yet another fruitful postseason wound up being the last action this group would see together.

Kvaratskhelia said he thinks his units were primed for success given the progress they had made and their championship pedigree.

“There were really trained winners,” he said. “So having that in our disposal would’ve given us a huge confidence going into the championship. We had that element of those kids literally did not know anything but how to win. … That’s what I was thinking was our biggest advantage going into the final competition of the year: the experience our seniors have provided [and] would provide for the quest for the national championships again.”

He also said coming off of national championships as a team in 2017 and 2018, the most disappointing aspect of the season’s cancellation is that his athletes will not have the chance to make school history and add a third national title to their own resumes.

“Winning it three times [is] really hard. Three consecutive championships has never been done … in Notre Dame fencing,” he said. “We had two teams in ’77 and ’78, and 2017 [and] ’18 back-to-back, but we’ve never had three. But, despite they have not won three times, they have two national championships on their belt with incredible experience on how to go through the process and how to succeed and a will with that. So that was disappointing for me that they did not get a crack for another one this year.”

He also had a great deal of sympathy for all those affected by the pandemic.

“My heart goes out to every athlete for our University, and this period is hard for everyone, fencer or not a fencer,” Kvaratskhelia said. “I’m disappointed, for my fencers, that hard work did not manifest itself to the ability to have that push to compete for the highest grade of the medal.”

Even so, the season was ripe with accolades. Aside from Kvaratskhelia’s own ACC Men’s and Women’s Coach of the Year awards, sophomore men’s foil Andrew Machovec, sophomore men’s sabre Alessandro Contreras, sophomore women’s sabre Kara Linder, sophomore women’s epeeist Miriam Grady and junior women’s foil Stefani Deschner all claimed ACC Fencer of the Year honors in their respective weapons. Deschner was also named the conference’s Women’s Fencing Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

Kvaratskhelia said the team can at least take some solace in what they were able to accomplish in the time they had.

“We will give [our athletes] honor, what they deserve, but I’m still very thankful that we got to have a season together all the way up to the national championships, and at least we have an ACC [title] under our belts,” he said. “So, they competed their hearts out and swept ACCs, and that belief could be a consolation prize. That’s something before this was all over.”

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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