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Fencing

Lights, Camera, Fence: Irish bid for repeat title at home

| Wednesday, March 23, 2022

A women’s team with a 42-3 record this season. An undefeated men’s squad that sits at 38-0 in the 2021-22 season. Three national titles in four years. 

The pedigree is there. And the expectations loom for the Notre Dame fencing squad as they enter the 2022 NCAA Championships this Thursday. 

“The pressure is pretty high,” Irish sabre coach Christian Rascioni said. “The regular season was very good. The ACCs were really strong. On our homefield, and the expectation is really high.” 

The Irish are hosting the four-day tournament on campus, starting at 9 am on Thursday. The women fence throughout the first two days and the men’s events encompass the final two days. 

The Irish fencing team has long been among the school’s premier programs. They boast 11 national titles and are looking to repeat as champions for the fourth time in program history. With a historic program competing on their home strips comes expectations for the 12 Irish fencers who qualified for the coming weekend. 

“They are proud to be part of this team and this program” Rascioni noted. “Of course, at the same time that we are proud, the goal is to make it better and better.” 

The Irish set a tough bar to eclipse last year, winning four of six individual titles and earning runners-up finishes in the other two events. However, the victories came against a depleted field. Namely, no Ivy League school attended the national championships, meaning some of the nation’s top teams weren’t there to challenge the Irish. This year, the field is fully loaded, and several teams are eyeing up the chance to take down the defending champs. 

Ivy League back, ready to make noise

“The teams with [the maximum] twelve qualifiers are the most dangerous. Columbia has a very competitive program and has won national championships,” Rascioni commented. “Princeton is very strong, especially on the women’s side. Harvard only has eleven fencers, but they are very good as well.” 

Rascioni certainly pinpointed the schools that many expect to challenge Notre Dame the most this weekend. In particular, the Irish must withstand an early challenge from Princeton. The Tigers boast the No. 1 ranked women’s team in the country. They have the maximum of two fencers competing for every event throughout the weekend. Princeton will hope to gain a lot of points from their women and then pass off a lead to their seventh-ranked men’s squad. 

Meanwhile, Columbia and Harvard bring more well-rounded challengers for the Irish. Columbia ranks second in both men and women and will also have twelve fencers available. Harvard will compete with just eleven fencers, qualifying just one woman in the sabre. However, both men and women rank in the top five and have the talent to make up for the missing fencer. 

Ohio State is the other program to bring twelve fencers for the four-day event. The Buckeyes rank fourth on the men’s side and sixth for the women. 

Irish loaded for run at repeat 

However, despite some strong challengers, the fact remains that the Irish are the favorites heading into the tournament. With the top-ranked and undefeated men’s squad, and the No. 3 ranked women, Notre Dame presents a deep and talented lineup. They’ve also experienced some adversity and displayed an ability to respond in the ACC Championships. The women trailed Duke 8-4 in the championships and won the final 15 bouts to clinch the conference title. 

Rascioni commented on the Irish’s resiliency under pressure. “Our best fencers compete internationally. Some of them are Olympians. They are used to stressful situations. They had a very good reaction when we were down, and that’s a very good sign for NCAAs.” 

The Irish bring a strong mix of veterans and NCAA tournament first-timers to the table ready to compete. Leading the women is defending sabre champion and senior Kara Linder, making her fourth NCAA appearance. Sophomore sabre Atara Greenbaum returns to the NCAA Tournament for her second appearance. Sophomore epees Kaylin Hsieh and Amanda Pirkowski make their second and first appearances respectively. In foil, junior Amita Berthier returns to the stage alongside freshman Nicole Pustilnik, a rookie the Irish are excited to see fence on this big a stage. 

“We have Nicole. She’s a first-timer, a fighter, a freshman and a very interesting name to watch,” Rascioni said. 

The women will attempt to grab a lead, or at least stay right with Princeton and Columbia. Then, they can pass it off to the top-ranked men’s squad to bring home the title. Five of the six men fencers are NCAA returners. Senior foilists Andrew Mahovec and Nick Itkin, a bronze medalist in the 2020 Olympics, each make their third appearance. Senior epee Stephen Ewart and senior sabre Jared Smith also head to the NCAAs for the third time. Competing alongside Ewart in epee is the lone men’s first-timer, junior Hunter Candreva. Ewart, Smith and Mahovec all finished second at last year’s NCAA Tournament in their respective events. 

Joining Smith in sabre is sophomore Luke Linder, the defending national champion in the event. Linder battled injury throughout the winter, but according to Rascioni, he’s ready to go this weekend. 

“He’s 100% recovered. Of course, in terms of preparation, he had to recover a little bit faster…get back up to speed.”

A blend of experience and talent will represent the blue and gold on the fencing strips this weekend. With 25 top-two finishes at the NCAAs since 1979, and the hope to repeat as champion at home, the pressure is on with the spotlight fully on Castellan Family Fencing Center this weekend.

But the Irish are ready to welcome all challengers — and to turn them away en route to a fourth title in five years. 

“Great practice, great training all season long,” Rascioni affirmed. “We feel really ready.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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