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NCAA Fencing Championships: Irish lead after Day 1

| Friday, March 25, 2022

Last year, Notre Dame Fencing won the national championship. However, the victory came against a somewhat depleted field. Due to COVID, the Ivy League schools did not participate, leaving Notre Dame a dominant force at the tournament.

“Last year, because of COVID, the playing field wasn’t as high. The Ivies are back, and they’re really, really good,” sophomore epeeist Kaylin Sin Yan Hsieh said. “I feel like I’m experiencing the first normal year.” 

However, even with a fully charged field ready to challenge the defending champions, Notre Dame still looked the part. Powered by a fantastic start from their epeeists, the Irish lead wire-to-wire on day one, ending with a seven-point advantage. The format is relatively simple, as each discipline competes in five rounds. Their first is seven five-touch bouts, with the following rounds consisting of four bouts. For each victory by a fencer, the school earns a point. The top four fencers in each discipline after the 23 total bouts move on to a 15-touch semifinal round to compete for individual championships. The individual championships do not affect the team score.

Epee sparks the Irish

On Thursday, the women completed the first three rounds in each of epee, sabre and foil. Epee started the day, and Hsieh and fellow sophomore Amanda Pirkowski got the Irish off to a hot start. They battled each other in an intense opening bout that was decided by a 5-4 margin, with Hsieh making a late comeback charge.

Hsieh commented on the intensity of the intra-squad battle to start her day: “During the first bout, it was already very intense, so that kind of set the tone that I had to be careful for the next one and keep up the same vibe.” 

She did just that, sweeping the rest of the opening round to start 7-0. Meanwhile, Pirkowski lost just one more bout, an overtime defeat, en route to a 5-2 start. The duo combined for an 8-0 record against Princeton and Columbia’s epeeists, two schools that figure to challenge the Irish down the stretch.

“We had the first round against Princeton and Columbia, and they’re the toughest competition,” said Irish epee coach Cedric Loiseau. “Winning all of those bouts was a terrific start.” 

Pirkowski’s day was mixed from there, as she went an even 4-4 in her final two rounds. However, the sophomore, making her NCAA Tournament debut, fought hard and engaged in six overtime bouts. At 9-6, she remains in the mix for a semifinals berth with eight bouts of pool play remaining. Hsieh, meanwhile is comfortable heading into Day 2. She lost just one bout all day, an overtime decision in round 2, en route to a 14-1 record. The defending national runner-up in the event, Hsieh dominated most of her opponents before squeaking out a pair of one-touch victories to end her day.

“Because I knew they were the last few bouts, that pushed me to hang in there,” Hsieh noted. “When it’s really close, the focus, the hunger and the passion are really important.” 

Loiseau also commented on Hsieh’s big day: “She knows she didn’t even fence her best, just fenced very smart. Fourteen wins in fifteen bouts is just crazy. Great performance.”

Loiseau also went on to say that he believed Hsieh had more left in the tank. She laughed at the comment but agreed, “He always says I have more left in the tank.” 

Foil and sabre maintain the advantage

While the Irish had their most success in epee, their other disciplines didn’t exactly flounder. All four fencers in foil and sabre remain alive for a semifinal berth tomorrow.

In foil, freshman Nicole Pustilnik and junior Amita Berthier represented the Irish. Berthier ended the day in fifth with an 11-4 mark, and Pustilnik sat in ninth at 10-5. Both are in position to make a charge on day two. The big efforts were particularly important for the Irish, as Columbia, which struggled in epee, made a big charge in this discipline, combining for a 24-6 record. Ohio State, the Irish’s primary non-Ivy challenger, matched Notre Dame with 21 wins.

At sabre, the Irish boasted the defending champion in senior Kara Linder, as well as NCAA Tournament returner and sophomore Atara Greenbaum. They matched the foilists with 21 total wins — Greenbaum holds fifth place with an 11-4 record, and Linder is in sixth with one less win. Greenbaum had a sparkling start, going 10-1, but she dropped three of her final four to Ohio State and Princeton fencers. All told, Linder and Greenbaum went 3-5 in a competitive final round to drop down the leaderboard a bit. However, neither seemed particularly phased.

“It’s definitely a really long tournament, and my experience has given me the tools to deal with a long day,” Linder said. “There’s a lot of ups and downs and adrenaline that you have to deal with.” 

Greenbaum also commented on the tough finish. “I was definitely keeping my focus and sticking to what I knew was working. Being really aggressive [earlier in the day]…End of the day, I have to keep that focus up, that aggression.” 

Despite the slower finish, the Irish still didn’t lose much ground. Columbia picked up another two points on Notre Dame, going 23-7 in sabre, while Princeton matched the Irish’s 21-9 mark. All told, the Irish lead the event with 65 points. Princeton sits second with 58, and Columbia is in third with 55. Those three are establishing themselves as the primary contenders in the women’s field. Ohio State and Harvard are in fourth and fifth with 50 and 48 points, respectively.

Linder noted that neither the Irish’s ranking, nor who they still had to fence, would affect their mentality.

“We’re just going to go and fence like we would any other team. We want to win all the bouts we can, and it doesn’t really matter who is in front of us.”


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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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