NCAA Fencing Championships: Irish women build 12-bout lead
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 after Thursday’s bouts. “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 led wire-to-wire, ending with a seven-point advantage on day 1. They led by twelve after the women’s portion of the event finished in Round 2.
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.
Day 1 Recap: 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.”
Day 2 Recap: Hsieh claims title, Irish expand lead
The Notre Dame women’s fencing team put a wrap on a highly successful two days on Friday. The Irish entered the four-day tournament as the No. 3 ranked women’s team and the top-ranked men’s team. Thus, finishing the first two days within striking distance of the lead would have been a job well done.
But, the Irish women did more than that. Fueled by six top-eight finishes and three semifinalists, the Irish took a 12-point lead into the men’s portion of the event.
Notre Dame entered the day with a seven-point lead after a strong first day. They expanded on it quickly, with their fencers dominating the competition. Combined, the six Irish fencers went 37-11 Friday morning. While epee carried the day on Thursday, foil and sabre dominated Friday. In sabre, sophomore Atara Greenbaum got off to a roaring start. She won her first six bouts, punctuated by a 5-1 victory over the leader at the time, Nora Burke of Columbia. Greenbaum finished 7-1 on the day. Her fellow sabre, senior Kara Linder, went 6-2, which left her just one win short of the semifinals. Her title defense ended, but Linder put up a strong performance of 16-7 in the tournament. All six of her Friday wins came by at least three touches.
In foil, junior Amita Berthier and freshman Nicole Pustilnik went to work. In the first pool play round of the day, the duo went a combined 8-0. Berthier out-touched her opponents 20-8, while Pustilnik dominated twice and won two one-touch bouts. Both entered the final round with a chance to qualify and it came down to the wire. Berthier went 2-2, finishing her pool play at 17-6. Pustilnik won her first three bouts of the second round. Ultimately though, she tired, losing her final bout to fall to 17-6 as well. Three other fencers matched that record, leaving the final three spots in the semifinals up to indicators. Berthier went through, but Pustilnik finished her tournament debut in sixth place.
For the epees, the Kaylin Hsieh show continued. The sophomore went 7-1 on Friday to finish 21-2 and in clear first place in the field. Sophomore Amanda Pirkowski had an up-and-down day, going 4-4. However, she did take down second-place finisher Emily Vermeule of Harvard, 5-1.
Ultimately, Notre Dame ended the day with 102 points. Princeton sits in second with 90, while Columbia mans the third-place ranking with 83 points.
Irish take one gold, two silvers in individuals
With pool play wrapped up, the tournament switched venues to Purcell Pavilion for the 15-touch semifinal and final bouts to determine the individual champions in each weapon. Here, Notre Dame came away with one individual champion — Kaylin Hsieh in epee. The two Irish silver medalists were Amita Berthier and Atara Greenbaum in foil and sabre respectively.
“So many things were going through my mind. I thought about last season where I lost one touch in the final bout. And I thought about having a concussion two weeks ago and having to pull out of ACCs, but I also thought about how hard I worked and that it all paid off,” Hsieh said.
That final bout last season came against LIU’s Laura Fekete. This year, Hsieh and Fekete faced off as semifinal opponents. It was a closely contested bout, but in the end, Hsieh avenged last year’s loss and progressed to face Harvard’s Emily Vermeule in the final.
Vermeule started out hot in the final, taking the first two touches. But Hsieh quickly settled in and she led 5-4 at the first break. It continued back and forth until, with the score at 9-7 and Hsieh leading, Vermeule fell on the strip and the official called for medical assistance.
“In my head, I was just thinking I had to just do my own thing and it would be fine,” said Hsieh of the stoppage.
Ultimately, she was just fine and after the five-minute stoppage Hsieh picked up where she left off. Following a few double-touches, Hsieh was able to pull away to seal the title and win the championship bout 15-10 over Vermeule. Hsieh claimed Notre Dame’s first individual title in women’s epee since Courtney Hurley in 2013.
In the foil, Amita Berthier had a semifinal matchup against regional rival Camilla Rivano. She got out to a fast start and led 6-2 at the first break. However, Rivano fought back. She reversed the score back to 10-9 at the second break, a complete reversal from the first period.
“I told myself to stay calm, I needed to maintain my cool or she would’ve continued scoring,” Berthier said.
She then came out of the break with the same fire from the first period and won the bout 15-11 over Rivano. With that, she moved onto the final against Princeton’s Maia Weintraub, the top seed. However, the final was lopsided from the beginning. Weintraub came out on fire, taking a 4-0 lead and never looking back. Berthier kept battling but trailed 4-11 at the break. It didn’t stop Weintraub’s momentum though and she was quickly on the precipice of the title, leading 14-5. But Berthier won 5 straight touches facing elimination before she finally lost one, giving Weintraub the 15-9 victory and the title.
“I think it shows I’m determined and I have a ‘never give up’ attitude,” said Berthier, “Over the years I’ve realized that if you just keep pushing it’s always possible to make a comeback.”
Despite her efforts falling just short, Berthier described feeling “overwhelmed and overjoyed” with her result in a competitive foil field. In the foil, six fencers won 17 bouts or more.
“This has been my hardest NCAAs so far in terms of the pool of fencers in my weapon. So making it to the top four, it was hard to get there. So once I was in, I just wanted to give my best and just enjoy it,” said Berthier.
In the sabre, Greenbaum faced Columbia’s Nora Burke in the semifinal where she got off to a difficult start and trailed 6-8 at the break. However, she came out of the break fencing with a purpose. With the bout tied at 11, she took the last four touches in a row to secure a spot in the final with a 15-11 win.
“I was down but then I adjusted some things that weren’t working and once I built that momentum, it was a lot easier to just pull away at the end,” said Greenbaum.
She then faced Harvard’s Elizabeth Tartakovsky in the final. It was a close bout early on. At times it seemed it might go down to the final touch. But sabre is fast-paced and following the break, a few touches and replay reviews went against Greenbaum, and the momentum swung fully to Tartakovsky. The Harvard fencer capitalized from then on and won the bout 15-10 to claim the sabre title.
“I‘m really happy with how I finished. I mean obviously, I wanted to win. But I’m still really happy with second place and it’s only just the beginning,” Greenbaum said.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.