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New season, new faces, same result: Irish kick off the new season with perfect weekend

| Monday, November 6, 2023

Hannah Huelskamp | The Observer
Irish freshman foilist Zoe Barnette competes during the Decicco Duals on Jan. 26, 2022. The Irish women posted a clean sweep of the competition on both days of the duals, going 14-0 overall.

After three consecutive national titles, Notre Dame fencing got their 2023-2024 season underway this weekend with a successful trip west to the Western Invitational at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Col. The No. 1 ranked men’s team and the No. 2 ranked women’s team both swept all seven of their weekend matchups to kick off the year.

The women’s team beat three ranked teams — No. 4 Harvard, No. 14 Stanford and No. 15 Air Force — on their way to a perfect weekend. The marquee matchup against Harvard was a 16-11 victory bolstered largely by the experienced saber squad. Led by perfect 3-0 performances from senior Atara Greenbaum and junior Jadeyn Williams, the saber team went a combined 8-1, picking up half the team’s bouts against the Crimson.

The effort from the men’s team was highlighted by two stellar showings against ranked opponents. Over 27 bouts, the Irish bested No. 5 Harvard 20-7 and No. 10 UC San Diego 17-10. The victory over the Crimson was highlighted by a pair of undefeated outings from freshmen foil fencers Dominic Joseph and Mason Stanley, who both went 3-0 in their bouts against Harvard.

That kind of contribution from young fencers is exactly what Notre Dame will need this year. The new season brings a certain level of uncertainty for the Irish. Five of their 12 NCAA championship entrants from a year ago aren’t back this year. Three of them graduated while two — epee Kaylin Hsieh and foil Chase Emmer — took the year off in preparation for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Sabre assistant coach Christian Rascioni also mentioned that reigning individual epee champion sophomore Eszter Muhari may still potentially step away from the team as she attempts to make the Olympics with Hungary.

Starting this weekend, Notre Dame fencing is seeing the upcoming season as a chance to integrate the freshman class and keep their impressive run of success going.

“We are working hard. The whole team is really, really doing a very good job,” Rascioni said. “We have a lack of experience, and we are trying to build this experience now, starting from Air Force.”

Before the weekend, graduate student Marcello Olivares, who won the individual foil title in 2021, spoke about the team’s excitement to integrate the new freshman class this weekend at their opening competition.

“It feels good just because we have a new type of energy coming. I think they’re very focused,” Olivares said about the incoming freshman class. “I think we’re definitely happy to be out there and be back on the strip. I think bringing the energy and just making a statement is the biggest thing for us.”

Rascioni mentioned two specific freshmen — foil Ryanne Leslie and sabre Radu Nitu — who the Irish hope can be impactful from the jump. Leslie is currently the 20th-ranked junior foil fencer in the world. In 2021, she was part of the team that took gold in the junior world championships for the United States. Nitu, who hails from Bucharest, Romania, is the fifth-ranked junior foil fencer in the world. Last summer, he fenced at the senior world championships, finishing a solid 60th despite being one of the youngest competitors there.

One of the biggest challenges for Notre Dame this season will be how they can keep focused and maintain the level of excellence and dominance they have displayed over the past three seasons while ushering in a young team. Having a young team full of freshmen can help with that for a simple reason: they have never won before. Regardless, Rascioni warns that inexperience can have its drawbacks.

“They could have more and more hunger,” Rascioni said about the freshmen. “At the same time, the lack of experience can be challenging because the format at the championships is very unique and to adapt to that format takes some time.”

That kind of potential weakness will have rival programs, especially highly ranked Ivy League schools like Princeton and Columbia, licking their lips at the chance to dethrone the three-time defending champions. Senior sabre Cate Priestley said their success over the last three seasons has effectively put a target on the team’s back. Opponents realize that something special is brewing in South Bend.

Despite that, those within the program are confident they can overcome those hurdles thanks to the singular team culture of Irish fencing. Even with three straight titles and a target on their backs, the Irish aren’t feeling the pressure.

“The biggest thing for us is I don’t feel like we feel pressure,” Olivares said. “The biggest thing is just knowing if we put in the work and we work hard, we could definitely do it [win a fourth title] because at the end of the day, it’s not just on one person, it’s the whole team as a whole.”

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About José Sánchez Córdova

José is a senior from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico studying political science, French and journalism. He is currently serving as an Assistant Managing Editor at The Observer.

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