Experienced '97 Irish Fencers Set To Fight for NCAA Title Again
Last season, the Notre Dame fencing team underwent a change it had not seen for 34 years.. For the first time since 1961, coaching legend Mike DeCicco was not at the helm. Yves Auriol, the women's head coach for the previous 10 years, took over for DeCicco. With a 213-11 record as women's coach, Auriol had more than the required credentials to become the head coach of both teams.
Under Auriol's guidance, Notre Dame's men's and women's teams lived up to the expectations DeCicco had established for Notre Dame fencing as they ended the 1996 season with a third top-three finish at the NCAA championship in as many years.
Qualifying just eight of the maximum 10 fencers for the NCAA championships, Auriol and his squad were pleased with their second-place finish. The Irish men's team ended the season with a 29-3 record while the women finished 31-1, their only loss to eventual national champion Penn State.
"Looking at the season overall they overachieved," says head coach Yves Auriol. "In the course of the season, both the men's and women's team came together very well. By the time we went to the NCAA championships, we were prepared and finished strong."
Indeed, the Irish did finish strong at the NCAA championships, rallying from a slow start to gain their runner-up finish. Notre Dame had three fencers earn first team All-America honors, while two were on the second team and one on the third team at the NCAA combined fencing championship.
Notre Dame fencing heads into the 1996-97 season with the same high standards that previous teams have had and returns all but four starters from both the men's and women's teams with expectations set on winning the national title.
"Every coach has the goal of winning the national championship each year, but for this year's team, I think it is realistic," says Auriol. "Last year we had a great impact from the freshmen. Sara Walsh, Myriah Brown, Nicole Mustilli, Stephane Auriol and Luke LaValle all played a major role. Having all that talent in one class does not happen too often. They are all returning and will have the same or greater impact.
"Our captains, Jeremy Siek and Bill Lester, have been the mainstay of the program for the past three years. With the depth that we have, we will be strong in our showing at the NCAA championship."
The men's foil team is captained for the second straight year by Siek, who along with Lester are the team's lone remaining fencers from the 1994 NCAA championship team. The senior has worked hard in the offseason to improve his style and technique on the strip.
"Jeremy is by far the best fencer on the men's foil team," says Auriol. "He provides a solid example in practice and all of the fencers respect him. I am confident this will be his best year as a captain and a fencer."
"I am really looking forward to this year," says Siek. "I really don't feel any pressure. It's just that all the things I've worked on and learned are coming together on the strip. I'll just continue to do my best throughout the year."
Siek's supporting cast on the foil team will be led by Stephane Auriol who enters his sophomore season in better physical shape than his freshman year. Auriol, Yves's son, will look to improve on his 33-18 record in 1996. Junior John Tejada, who finished last season with a 34-17 record, will also have to a play major role for the foil team.
The men's sabre team, which finished 31-1 in 1996, is lead by senior captain Lester and LaValle, giving the Irish one of the best one-two combinations in men's sabre. They combined for a 1996 record of 131-15. A two-time All-American and 1996 GTE Academic All-American, Lester can become Notre Dame's all-time leader in fencing wins this season with 21 more victories. In claiming this record, Lester would surpass current assistant coach Mike Sullivan for the top spot on the all-time win list.
LaValle seeks to improve from a stellar first season which saw him place fourth at the NCAA championship and finish in the top 10 of many Notre Dame men's sabre records. Senior Jeffrey Wartgow will be stable in the three spot, taking over for Chris McQuade who was a solid No. 3 sabreman for the Irish in 1996.
"With Bill Lester and Luke LaValle, we can go anywhere in sabre," says Auriol.
The men's epee squad will attempt to improve from 1996. The fencing of Brian Stone (46-33 in 1996) and the comeback of Brice Dille (50-36), who suffered a post-season neck injury, will play a major role in the effectiveness of the team. The team will also look to two freshmen, Dominic Guarnaschelli and James Gaither, to give the Irish immediate results.
Senior captain Phillip Lee, who qualified for the NCAA championships a year ago, gained his role on the team through physical education class and after three years of hard work, he has attained the leadership role.
"I am excited to be a captain of this team and to be a part of a program that has such great tradition," says Lee.
The women's team has been dominant in recent years, losing just one match in its last 93 contests. The tandem of super sophomores, Walsh and Brown, should be nearly unstoppable. Walsh, the 1996 NCAA women's foilist runner-up, was an alternate on the 1996 United States Olympic foil squad while Brown also earned All-America honors last year with her sixth-place foil finish at the NCAA championships. The two All-Americans combined for a 160-9 record in 1996.
The team has depth with return of a healthy junior in Amee Appel (45-6 in 1996), who was hampered by back problems last season, and senior captain Rose Saari (43-14 in '96).
"Sara and Myriah are exceptional fencers," says Auriol. "Rose is doing a great job as a captain and she has lots of enthusiasm," said Auriol.
With the loss of epee All-American Claudette de Bruin, who placed third at the 1995 and 1996 NCAA championships, two additions to the women's epee squad will enable the team to continue its success on the strip. Sophomore Nicole Mustilli, a member of the foil squad last season, will make the transition from foil to epee. Auriol will look to freshman Magda Krol to have as big an impact in 1997 as Walsh and Brown had in 1996 for the Irish.
"Magda is the most talented fencer of her class," says Auriol. "The Mustilli move is great for the team and for her. Now she is able to concentrate on one weapon." The epee team also has depth with seniors Colleen Smerek and Maria Thieneman and sophomore Anne Hayes. The team is also captained by a talented fencer in Anne Hoos. Hoos came on strong at the end of last season, fencing well at the Midwest regional championships and earning a trip to the NCAA championships. Though she has the tough task of filling de Bruin's shoes as a captain, Hoos looks to have her epee squad ready for battle on the strip.
"I think our women's epee squad will do well this year," says Hoos. "The depth we have makes every practice competitive. That competition will only benefit us in our meets." "There are a couple of fencers who are clearly better than others, but beyond those few, the women's team has great depth" says Auriol. "There exists a quality blend of talent on each team. This will only better the results of the teams when they compete."
The obvious goal for the Irish is at the NCAA championships, held this year at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., March 20-23, 1997. "The competition is tough," says Auriol. "Penn State will always be strong and Princeton, St. John's, Columbia and Stanford will be competitive. But with the format, if we send 10 fencers, we will be very strong in our showing."
"Coach Auriol teaches us to strive for perfection in technique and to be in constant pursuit of excellence in all areas," says Siek. "He is simply about class and determination." Auriol has instilled this attitude in his team and they will echo his words come March at the NCAAs.
"We will be there."