Jan. 16, 2014
- Lizzie Mikes, Media Services Coordinator -
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - If the 2013 University of Notre Dame fencing team was a team of seasoned veterans, the 2014 team is one filled with competitive underclassmen hungry to prove themselves.
"We are going to build a new team, and work with tougher admission guidelines. In addition, with having new names, we need to find a way to cooperate between them. Similar to baking a new kind of cake, you have to control ingredients to end up with the desired product," Irish head coach Janusz Bednarski says.
"This year, we have a group of competitive, young, fencers with a strong drive to learn. It's a good group, and we are lucky to receive help from former fencers such as our new director of operations Alex Buell, and volunteer coaches Keith Feldman and Ewa Nelip," Bednarski continues.
The Irish lost 14 fencers to graduation after last season, and welcomed in 12 freshman and three walk-ons. The squad hardest hit by graduation was undoubtedly women's sabre, which said farewell to five seniors. In addition, two-time NCAA champion and 2012 Olympian Courtney Hurley competed in her final season with the women's epee squad last season, joined by fellow seniors Phenix Messersmith and Nelip. Grace Hartman was the lone women's foilist to graduate.
On the men's team, the epee and sabre squads each graduated two combatants - James Kaull and Jack Piasio in epee, and Jason Choy and Will McGough in sabre. Grant Hodges and two-time Olympian Gerek Meinhardt walked at commencement in 2013, but Meinhardt returns in 2014 for a fifth year of eligibility. His knowledge and international competition will bring expertise to an already strong foil squad, as the Irish set out this weekend to compete in the January North American Cup in the Div. I and Junior classes in Virginia Beach, Va., on Jan. 18-20.
After traveling to Virginia, Notre Dame will make a trek to the Empire State for a pair of meets in the greater New York City area. The first, hosted by NYU, takes place Jan. 25, with the St. John's Invitational the following day in Queens. Less than a week later, they will take a short road trip down I 80/90 to Midwestern Fencing Conference (MFC) foe Northwestern, before hosting the newly renamed DeCicco Duals the following weekend.
The DeCicco Duals were renamed from the Notre Dame Duals to honor former head coach Mike DeCicco, who passed away in March of 2013. Throughout the 2014 season, Irish fencers will also wear commemorative armbands for Coach DeCicco, in remembrance of all he did not only for the fencing program, but also the University.
A week after the DeCicco Duals, the Irish make their longest trek of the year out to Portland, Ore. for Junior Olympics and Nationals competition. The meet is the last regular-season meet of the year, and could serve as a stepping-stone for several Irish fencers onto the U.S. National team. On March 1 and 2, Notre Dame will play host to the Midwest Fencing Conference Championships. The following weekend will see select Irish combatants travel to University of Detroit-Mercy to qualify at the NCAA Midwest Regional meet for a spot in the NCAA Championships, which take place March 20-23 in Columbus, Ohio, on Ohio State's campus.
Looking ahead and surveying his competition, Bednarski simply says, "Kudos to our opponents for building big teams, both by name and in the caliber of competition. I still have a feeling that we will be fighting for a national championship every year - it is our goal to go there, it is our goal to win there, and through cooperation between fencers and coaches, you gain experience to win and place in the top three like we did in 2012 & '13."
-- A Change is Upon Us --
In September 2012, The University of Notre Dame announced it would be joining the Atlantic Coast Conference, after being a member of the BIG EAST conference for 18 years. In fencing, this meant a move as well, and 2014 marks the last season Irish fencers will compete in the Midwest Fencing Conference before moving to the ACC along with the other Olympic sports programs. Bednarski for one is excited about the move, citing more organized competitions as a leading factor in favor of the move:
"We are going to a more organized competition with our ACC Championship meet. Our goal to organize the competition to make it more audience-friendly is more easily met in the ACC. The MFC has 23 teams; to organize it in a similar manner is very difficult because of the sheer size of that organization. While we will lose familiar foes such as Ohio State and Northwestern, the ability to better coordinate a conference championship is not as easily doable in the MFC as it is in the ACC with only four teams."
-- Looking Ahead --
Here is a look at the 2014 Irish roster broken down by weapon:
If any squad stands to put head coach Janusz Bednarski on a rollercoaster ride this year, it's the men's epee squad - and he's unabashedly frank about it. "Men's epee is an enigma, quite honestly. There are so many different personalities with this squad, and we're not sure how everyone will grow. Two new, true freshman - Arthur Le Meur and Conrad Sutter - and two, older more experienced newcomers - Mitchell Revich and Mark O'Dea - who are not superstars, makes this a very unique situation."
Returning both NCAA combatants from last year, Michael Rossi adds veteran experience while sophomore Garrett McGrath provides inner strength. At last year's NCAAs, watching Ohio State's Marco Canevari claim the men's epee title, McGrath said, "Watching him compete is beautiful; I want to be like that next year." McGrath and Rossi are joined by 11 other epeeists, making this the largest weapons class on the Irish roster.
In addition to Rossi and McGrath, the remainder of the epee squad includes Ian Broderick, Albert He, Ryan McDonough, John Poremski and Dale Purdy, all of who combined last year to post a 33-8 record. Only time will tell who steps up to fulfill the voids left by Kaull and Piasio, who logged 43-19 and 29-23 marks last year, respectively.
After losing only one senior to graduation last year, the men's foil squad welcomes in four new freshmen in addition to returning both NCAA combatants from 2013 - both of whom are former champions. Graduate student Gerek Meinhardt, currently ranked first in both individual and team competition, is one of two captains for the Irish this year. Meinhardt won his first NCAA championship in 2010 after a runner-up finish in 2009. After two years away from NCAA competition, he finished in a tie for third with his 2012 Olympic teammate Miles Chamley-Watson of Penn State at the 2013 NCAA Championship. Ariel DeSmet won the '11 title as a freshman, then took a year off for international training, only to come back with a vengeance and steamroll through his competition in 2013, posting a 40-5 regular season record.
"It was very interesting from the beginning to see the superstars like Meinhardt and DeSmet take the new kids under their wing and challenge them in competition," says Bednarski. "They pushed them to grow, and because we can only qualify two for the NCAA Championship, any strong fencer can go. It's a challenge, but the feeling that this group was meshing together so well right from the beginning, with personalities like Meinhardt and DeSmet and Nick Kubik leading the way, there wasn't any animosity.
"Gia (foil coach Gia Kvaratskhelia) built this squad up, and he is learning very quickly how they work together. I believe that this squad will be strong this year and for years to come."
In addition to Meinhardt and DeSmet, returning Irish foilists are Gabriel Acuna, Nick Kubik and Alan Markow; the freshman class boasts Kristjan Archer, a British powerhouse, in addition to John Crumpler, Hazem Khazbak and Matthew Owens.
Archer is not the only internationally competing freshman, as Khazbak has competed with and captained the U-18 and U-22 Egyptian national team. Khazbak is familiar with the Irish program, as he trains in Versailles, Ky. at the same club as 2012 Olympian Lee Kiefer.
Similar to the women's squad, men's sabre said goodbye to several seniors last year, and welcomed in one freshman in the form of Ian Dwyer. Both Kevin Hassett and John Hallsten return, hungry to avenge last year's NCAA performance. "This is also a tough situation moving forward," Bednarski says. "We really need some kids who will be recruited and will help. Kevin Hassett is the most experienced in this group, which is good, but he is graduating this year; we will have a relatively young Hallsten competing, who has started earning some international results, which is good, and it will be curious to see him develop. "
Hassett, a two-time All-American, earned a 34-22 record last year, bringing his career total to 94-43. Hallsten made a strong debut as a freshman, logging the best individual bout record of any Irish sabreman with a 36-23 mark. He narrowly out-touched senior captain Jason Choy to advance to the NCAA Championships in San Antonio Texas, after winning the Midwest Fencing Conference Championships a week prior. In addition to Choy, Will McGough and Chris Viamontes also left the squad last year. Senior Alex Coccia will have a full schedule this year, as he balances his duties as both fencer and student body president in the 2013-14 school year.
Perhaps the squad with the biggest shoes to fill, women's epee lost Olympian and two-time NCAA champion Courtney Hurley to graduation as well as Ewa Nelip, a Polish prodigy in the weapon who boasted an astonishing 174-22 record in her career with the Irish. Juniors Ashley Severson and Nicole "Nik-ik" Ameli will anchor this squad moving forward. About Severson, Bednarski comments, "She did very well during the fall season, and her role is for sure to replace Courtney Hurley - maybe not yet on the international results level, but here she will provide strength and dedication to our sport at the NCAA. She's now a candidate for the national team, the Olympics are coming, and she has been invited for World Cup attendance; she is coming into her own as a world-class fencer and it's exciting to watch her succeed with us."
Ameli also is described as having a great personality and someone who brings people together. "She's a very talented athlete, and it's fun to see her grow in confidence with every bout and continue to develop as an athlete. Her and Severson bring great talent to the strips," says Bedarski.
The women's foil squad represents one of four Irish squads that will see both 2013 combatants returning. Junior Madison Zeiss finished third in her second showing at the NCAAs and adds experience and expertise to the women. Perhaps no one is more accomplished on the women's team than internationally-renowned sophomore Lee Kiefer, defending NCAA champion and foil phenom. Kiefer logged a near-perfect 22-1 round robin record at last year's Championships, tying Gerek Meinhardt and Andrea Ament for the program's second-best record in NCAA competition as a freshman. Joining Kiefer and Zeiss is fellow sophomore Nicole McKee, who adds depth to an already strong roster.
Says Bednarski about his women foilists, "From this group, I need results. With Lee and Madison and Nicole, there's a lot of depth on our women's foil squad. This will be one of the strongest parts of our team, moving forward. Competition in the women's field is extremely fierce, there's a lot of young women both here and internationally that are growing into strong competitors and going to other colleges, so it's tough, but we believe the women's foil team will be one of the strongest parts of our combined team."
The women's sabre squad returns three and welcomes two sabreuses to the Irish family. Amongst the three returnees, Johanna Thill looks to step up and add the most veteran experience, coming off her top-12 finish at last year's NCAAs and showing poise and expertise in the weapon beyond her years. Mary Regan, a transfer from Northwestern last year, will also add depth to a short roster, aided by sophomore Grace Montemurro.
"The problem is that we have five girls with limited experience," Bednarski says. "Recruiting will play a part significantly for this squad moving forward, especially in numbers, but Thill and (freshman Allison) Barry have more experience in the higher ranks of competition and should step up for leadership. Mary Regan can also add depth after transferring last year, so we have four to five girls that will be competing for spots, and those spots will be earned on the strip."
Barry stands to make an immediate impact on the sabre team, already boasting experience at the 2012 and '13 Junior Olympics despite her freshman stature. She has also competed at several North American Cup competitions, and shows a dedication to her craft that is unrivaled. In addition to Barry, Victoria Sluka joins the Irish as a sophomore. She did not compete as a freshman, but is accomplished in competition through her home club, IndySabre Fencing.
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