Categories
Sports

127 days: Notre Dame fencing eyes three-peat

Barely hours after Notre Dame fencing claimed its 12th national title in Purcell Pavilion earlier this year, the championship countdown clock on the wall of their locker room was updated. The clock read “361 days,” right above the 2023 National Collegiate Fencing Championships logo. That sign — now down to 127 days — is a marker of the unwavering championship aspirations of the most dominant varsity athletics program at the University of Notre Dame.

Since head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia took over the program in 2014, Notre Dame has won four national titles. They’ve earned five conference championships and crowned 13 individual national champions. That phenomenal run of success could reach new heights this season. The Irish seek to complete the first three-peat in collegiate fencing since Penn State won six consecutive titles from 1994-2000.

Graduate student epeeist Miriam Grady, who returned to the program for a fifth year on the back of a strong season, still wants more. Grady is also one of the few remaining fencers on the squad from the 2018-2019 season, the last time Notre Dame failed to win a national title.

“Coming off two national championship wins, we’re feeling good and we know we have what it takes to win another one, so the expectations are very high,” she said. “But it’s very difficult to win three in a row, even when you have the best roster. I still remember my freshman year, when we were coming off two back-to-back wins and still had one of the strongest rosters and we fell just short. It’s really hard, so we definitely have our eyes set on creating history.”

It’s only natural that the success of the program has brought with it a lot of expectations. It has also put a target on the backs of Notre Dame’s fencers. For Grady and the team, those expectations are nothing more than just motivation to prove they belong at the top.

“We all have that burden of being number one,” she said. “Whenever we step on the strip, we know that teams fight extra hard against us just because we’re Notre Dame. We know that and have to be willing to show them who we are and why we’re number one.”

That mindset is the product of an experienced Notre Dame team that returns 10 of the 12 fencers who competed at the national championships last year. Despite this, sabre coach Christian Rascioni spoke about an interesting dynamic that emerged within the team with the large incoming freshman class.

“It’s a particular situation this year because we have a lot of seniors and also many freshmen, but not many sophomores and juniors,” he said. “It’s a big gap between the youth and the more experienced fencers, so we need to be patient to work with the freshmen and teach them our mentality, our culture and make sure they are ready soon.”

Rascioni also emphasized the role of the more experienced fencers in helping newcomers adapt to the intense environment of college fencing.

“On the strip, no matter how many people you have behind you, it’s an individual sport. You are alone. What the upperclassmen do is help the freshmen understand how to face those lonely moments on the strip when it’s just you and your opponent,” he added.

That freshman class added 23 new fencers to the Irish ranks, highlighted by foilist Chase Emmer and epeeist Eszter Muhari. Emmer is currently the top-ranked men’s junior foilist in the world and 26th overall. He finished 20th overall at the senior World Championships this July and recently won a junior World Cup event held in London. Muhari is currently the 27th-ranked women’s epeeist in the world. Additionally, she’s a former world No. 3 in the junior ranks. She finished last season by earning 15th place at the World Championships in Cairo and a silver medal at the junior European Championships.

Grady’s experience has allowed her to understand where they’ve fallen short in years past and she credits the new talent with a sense of hunger that has helped the team overcome complacency.

“Our focus wasn’t where it needed to be [in 2018]. It felt like people took the winning for granted and didn’t keep putting in the work. The problem then is that if you don’t have that drive to keep improving then other teams are going to catch up. This year, we have a huge freshman class and they’re all really hungry and bringing a ton of energy,” she said.

Sophomore foilist Nicole Pustilnik, who finished sixth at the national championships last year, spoke about the level of preparation the team has undergone to prepare for the new season.

“We do our lifts twice a week in the mornings and we’ve been ramping up on conditioning. Then it’s just a lot of training and practice every afternoon for two and a half hours,” she said.

Junior sabre Luke Linder, the 2021 individual national champion, echoed Pustilnik’s sentiment.

“Every day we come in and it’s all the intensity we can give. If we take a day off, we don’t want to feel like we’re leaving something on the table and not having a good enough practice. That effort adds up throughout the season and that’s our mentality,” he said.

That preparation will be put to the test this Saturday in Philadelphia at Penn’s Elite Invitational, the first meet of Notre Dame’s 2022-2023 season. The competition will see the Irish fence Princeton, Long Island University, Temple (women’s only), Air Force (men’s only), North Carolina and Penn.

The matchup to watch will be their season-opening bouts against Princeton. The Tigers finished fourth at last year’s national championships and had an individual champion in women’s foil as Maia Weintraub defeated Notre Dame’s Amita Berthier in the final. They also handed Notre Dame’s women’s team one of just three regular-season losses in 45 contests last year.

Linder was clear about the importance of getting off to a strong start this weekend and issued a statement of intent for Notre Dame Fencing.

“Last year we won and we don’t want things to be different this year,” he said. “We want to show we’re a dominant program and we’re here to stay. This first meet is about showing everybody that we picked up right where we left off and that we mean business.”

Contact Joche Sanchez Cordova at jsanch24@nd.edu.