Categories
Sports

Irish fencing starts strong, goes unbeaten at Elite Invitational

Notre Dame fencing picked up where it left off at its opening meet of the season, going undefeated at the University of Pennsylvania’s Elite Invitational Saturday. The Irish went 5-0 in both the men’s and women’s competitions with some standout performances on both sides.

Irish notch big wins over Princeton

Wins over the Princeton Tigers (No. 5 men’s team and No. 1 women’s team) in the morning session propelled the Irish to a stellar performance. The women handled business relatively comfortably, beating Princeton 17-10. For senior Paige Luong and the women’s foil team, it meant just a little bit more.

“Last season, women’s foil went 0-9 [against Princeton] so it was pretty bad. We came into this meet with a target on their back, so we had the goal of doing our best and kicking their butts. We ended up going 6-3 and we were calm and confident, even against their best fencers,” she said.

The men’s team had a tremendous battle to win 14-13 over the Tigers. The saber team came up huge, going 6-3 as a unit and winning the final two bouts to clinch the match. Senior epee Joshua Zhang got a win in the match and stood by as sophomore saber Alexandre Lacaze clinched it for the Irish.

“It was the biggest test of the weekend, and we knew that going in. Everyone was locked in, and saber had two huge bouts at the end to clinch it,” he said.

Zhang spoke about the matchup with Princeton setting the tone for the rest of the meet and bolstering their confidence moving forward.

“I’m just happy we did well across the board because Princeton is some of our biggest competition,” he said. “They also have a deep and talented roster, so I’m happy how, mentally, we pulled it together and embraced the intensity of the moment. We really came together in that first bout and the momentum carried forward the rest of the day. It was by far the biggest win of the weekend.”

Veterans, rookies stand out

A few familiar faces had some outstanding performances throughout the weekend. Reigning women’s epee national champion Kaylin Hsieh went 9-0 on Saturday, including a combined 6-0 against Ivy League opposition (Penn and Princeton). Graduate student saber Jared Smith finished with the best record of any Irish fencer this meet, going 12-0 against four different teams to start his season with a bang.

There were also some new faces making their mark for the Irish squad. Men’s foil had standout performances from freshmen Ziyuan Chen (11-2) and Chase Emmer (10-4). On the women’s side, freshman epeeist Michaela Joyce went 7-1 in her first collegiate competition.

Zhang emphasized how their success sets up the team for the rest of the season.

“The first meet is always the hardest and we had a huge freshman class coming in. College fencing is way different, so it was really encouraging to see the freshmen step up,” he said.

He also underlined how, along with their talent, the young fencers are bringing new energy to the squad. “This weekend we had some of the best vibes since I’ve been here. I think this team is arguably the strongest team I’ve been on so far and the fact we did so well in the first meet is really promising for our season,” Zhang said.

Irish eye bigger goals after unbeaten start

Outside of Princeton, the Irish men also picked up wins against the Air Force Academy (17-10), Long Island University (21-6), North Carolina (16-11) and the tournament hosts, No. 8 Penn (20-7). The women matched the perfect effort with wins over No. 11 Temple (20-7), Long Island University (22-5), No. 14 North Carolina (24-3) and the eighth-ranked host (20-7).

This weekend was Notre Dame’s only fall semester meet and they face a long layoff before its next collegiate competition at the St. John’s Invitational on Jan. 21 in New York. This creates put an extra emphasis on the past weekend as a way to build confidence and momentum before entering the team’s grueling spring schedule.

“This is our only meet of the semester and the only one until January. We had a lot of fencers traveling, so we didn’t even have the full squad. It’s really encouraging to be able to show how deep our team is,” Zhang said. “I think the message we’re sending is to be cautious with our victories. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and be overconfident heading into any meet. This team has everything it needs to win a championship and that’s the end goal.”

Contact Jose Sanchez Cordova at jsanch24@nd.edu.

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.