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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.

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Luke Linder aims to reclaim individual title, lead Irish

In 2021, then-freshman Luke Linder was the first Irish fencer to win the men’s sabre individual NCAA championship since 2000. The following season, Linder tore his labrum and rested for a large part of his sophomore season. He came back in time to go 15-8 and finish seventh at the national championships. Now, as a junior, Linder is healthy and ready to pick up where he left off. 

“You know, freshman year, I did win the individual title. Sophomore year, I tore my labrum and I was out for a pretty long time,” Linder said. “So this year, I am really trying to stay healthy so I can compete all season long. Give all I can for the team as well as reclaim the individual title… just so there is not a drop-off and [prove] I am still one of the best in the country.” 

Linder finished 12-4 in his freshman season and it was highly anticipated he would continue his success as a sophomore. Even with his injury, Linder went 25-2 on the season but did not compete in the ACC tournament. He came in second in NCAA regionals. 

Notre Dame fencing is back in action Saturday when the team travels to Philadelphia to play in the Elite Invitational at the University of Pennsylvania.

However, as the returning national champions, there is immense pressure for the Irish to do well in their opening match. 

“It’s incredibly important to show [up and win]. Last year we won and we don’t want things to be different this year. We want to show that we’re a dominant program and we’re here to stay and really, you know, come into this first meet and show everybody we picked off right where we left off,” Linder said. “If things are unfortunate and just don’t go our way, we’re definitely gonna get back [to South Bend] and make sure that next meet we’re gonna get back and kick the hell out of everybody.” 

Linder carries this pressure more than others on his team. As one of the best fencers in the country, Linder must prove himself as another contender. Despite being alone on the mat, Linder has the support of his teammates behind him, especially that of graduate student sabre Jared Smith, who Linder beat in 2020 to win the national championship. 

“We feed off of each other. It’s incredible, the chemistry is really amazing,” Linder said of his teammate. “We’ve known each other for a long time and we know what to say to each other if we’re getting a little confused or something is not going right. We’re right there to help one another.” 

When Linder was absent, Smith took home first place in the ACC tournament. This year, the two will be competing together again.  

“It’s something taken for granted — having your teammate back there that supports you all the way through – and just being a dog out there with you. It’s incredibly important.” Linder said. 

Smith is not the only teammate Linder has by his side. In 2021, Linder and his sister graduate student sabre Kara Linder became the first brother-sister duo to win individual titles in the same year. 

“It’s an incredible opportunity,” said Linder. “And just cementing that legacy of the brother-sister and having someone on the team who is a family member who loves you, who takes care of you and is there for you when you need it and vise-versa. There is nothing better than that. And the chemistry is right there and it is important.” 

The Linder duo look to recreate Luke’s freshman year, as the two head out together this season. While Kara Linder was unable to win last season, she did finish in 5th in the NCAA tournament, and helped bring the Irish home their national championship. 

As the Irish head out on their 2022-23 season, Linder will play an important role in the future success of the program. And despite the immense pressure on him and the team, he is ready for anything that is thrown at him. 

“It’s really the mentality — the mindset — coming here giving everything we can, knowing what this program is,” said Linder. “It’s not just about us, but leaving the legacy behind.”

Contact Olivia Schatz at oschatz@nd.edu.