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‘It motivates us’: Pirkowski, Itkin reflect on representing the Irish at home

| Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Notre Dame women’s fencing team found themselves in an unusual situation at the ACC Championships in at Cameron Indoor Stadium about a month ago. During a title-deciding match against Duke, they were down 4-8 and staring down the barrel of a first ACC title loss since 2018. But they rallied, winning 14 of the final 15 bouts to clinch the title. Since that weekend, Notre Dame have been building momentum to the culmination of their season, this weekend’s NCAA Championships at home.

Pirkowski lauds preparation, resiliency as keys for Irish

“Fortunately, our best fencers are competing internationally, some of them Olympians or trying to make the national team for the world championship,” sabre coach Christian Rascioni said. “They are pretty used to managing stress [in those situations]. Of course, nothing is like NCAAs or ACCs, and they had a very good reaction. We had a very good reaction when we were down and it’s a good very good sign for us for NCAAs.”

Sophomore epeeist Amanda Pirkowski agreed with Rascioni. “I think we’ve all been in certain places where we’ve been down and it’s a battle to come back but we’re strong as a team and we are able to pull through. It was a little nerve-wracking, but I think that experience is only going to make us stronger coming into NCAAs. Saying no matter where we are, we can always come back, push through and take the titles.”

This confidence permeates throughout Notre Dame’s fencing program, the university’s most successful in the last few years. But with three national titles in the past four NCAA tournaments, the question is obvious: Can they keep it up and defend their titles at home?

Said sabre coach Christian Rascioni: “The expectation is very, very high. But at the same time, we’ve done everything we can. Great practices, great training. The team just works hard every day.”

Pirkowski also spoke about the preparation the team has undergone the past few weeks to keep improving and be at the highest level they can be for NCAAs. They stayed on campus during spring break, practicing six hours a day. Through high-intensity conditioning, bouting drills and a full NCAA tournament simulation with all the fencers, the team has been preparing both mentally and physically for the high-pressure environment they will face this weekend.

Itkin leads the men’s program, looks for third title

“Our guys have been traveling internationally and nationally. Not all of us but a good amount,” said senior foilist Nick Itkin. Itkin is a two-time individual NCAA Champion and an Olympic bronze medalist in Tokyo. “And that kind of confidence is there. Other people can feel it as well. And our teammates are getting stronger for fencing all these high-level fencers, and we’ve just grown so much, and I think our team is really, really strong this year.”

Itkin has been on the team since 2018. Then, he won the individual foil title as a freshman while the team claimed the national title. The year after, he defended his title in 2019, but Notre Dame fell short as Columbia won the team title. Itkin said it was a much sweeter experience to win the team title and not just the individual. He noted that this team is different from previous years, that they have the talent, but also the experience to defend their titles. The results for the season back it up, as Notre Dame’s men’s team (41-0) put up their first undefeated regular season since Itkin arrived in South Bend.

Rascioni spoke highly of Itkin and his role on the team: “He’s a veteran. I mean, he’s still very young, of course, but he’s like a dad for the team because of all his experience. He’s always calm. He’s got a completely different approach. And you can see it because he always looks in control of the situation. It’s absolutely a huge help to have guys like him with such a strong experience.”

Itkin leaned into that role: “I’ve been here for five years now. So, I’ve been through a lot. Me and Stephen [Ewart] are the only ones who were a part of the 2018 team that won a championship. So, being on that team, we try to bring back some of the stuff that we learned. And from being on the team the next year, which lost [at the national championships], we know what it takes to be on a winning team and what mistakes you made.”

Fencing at home a unique challenge

This weekend is also the first time the NCAA Fencing Championships are being held in South Bend since 1998 when Notre Dame were runners-up by just two points to Penn State who won six consecutive titles from 1995-2000. For the team, this presents an added dimension, equal parts exciting and challenging, to an already pressure-filled competition.

“It’s interesting. In a way, it’s easier to prepare for a tournament while traveling because we can keep the concentration,” said Rascioni, “It’s much easier to not have any distractions. Staying at home is a little different, and because [of that] Wednesday we’re going to move into a hotel and keep the team, coaches and the staff together to prepare the best way possible for every single bout.”

Pirkowski and Itkin both highlighted the excitement of fencing at Notre Dame and having friends and family coming to cheer them on.

“I think it’ll hopefully help us out a lot, especially for people competing first time. It just helps to have a lot of people cheering for you. It can motivate you, and hopefully intimidate the opponents a little bit too.” said Itkin.

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