Jan. 19, 2007
The 2007 Notre Dame fencing season will mark the farewell for an accomplished senior class that will be looking to lead the Irish to the program's eighth NCAA team title and third in the past five years. Sabre standouts Patrick Ghattas (a two-time NCAA runner-up) and Valerie Providenza (the 2004 NCAA champion) - both three-time All-Americans - headline a veteran contingent that includes 10 members of the 2007 team who were among the 12 fencers that competed at the 2006 NCAAs.
Three other members of the 2007 team - senior epeeist Amy Orlando, senior sabreist Matt Stearns and junior foilist Jakub Jedrkowiak - are two-time All-Americans, with sophomore foilist Adrienne "Adi" Nott also owning collegiate All-America honors on her fencing resume. The other returning competitors from the 2006 NCAA contingent include senior epeeist Aaron Adjemian, junior foilist Melanie Bautista, sophomore foilist Mark Kubik and sophomore epeeist Karol Kostka.
On paper, Notre Dame's best three-deep weapon groups likely are on the men's side, as senior foilist Frank Bontempo is a second-year captain who competed in the 2004 NCAAs while junior epee captain Greg Howard narrowly missed a spot in the past two NCAA Tournaments, as did sophomore sabreist Bill Thanhouser in 2006.
Notre Dame originally was set to return all 12 of the fencers from the 2006 unit that finished fourth atop a crowded NCAA leaderboard (the Irish were just four points off the lead entering the final day). One of those fencers, All-America epeeist Madeleine Stephan, returned to her native Germany to help care for an ill family member but could return for what would be her sophomore season in 2007-08. Another more well-known fencer is set to miss each of the next two seasons, as sabreist Mariel Zagunis - the 2004 Olympic medalist, 2005 NCAA runner-up and 2006 NCAA champion - has opted to focus on training for 2008 Olympic qualifications during all of 2007 and the 2008 spring semester.
Zagunis then would return for her fifth and final year of collegiate eligibility in 2008-09, when many of the top Irish fencers (such as Nott, Kubik, Kostka and Thanhouser, plus a promising collection of signees) still should be on hand for another run at the NCAA title.
Another Olympic-caliber fencer has joined the Notre Dame program and would be a lead member of that prospective 2008-09 squad, as elite epeeist Kelley Hurley is embarking on her freshman season. The 18-year-old Hurley already has won a world championship during her young fencing career (at the under-17 level, doing so in 2005) and currently is listed second on the USFA national rankings for all women's epeeists, behind her 16-year-old sister Courtney.
Fifth-year Irish head coach Janusz Bednarski lost his former assistant coach Zoltan Dudas to the head coaching position at Princeton but made a key hire by adding foil specialist Gia Kvaratskhelia as the program's primary assistant coach. Kvaratskhelia was a highly-respected club coach at the Kanza Fencing Club (in Salina, Kan.) and even has coached Kubik at various times during the past few years.
2006-07 Notre Dame Women's Fencing Capsule
Other Top Returners (2006 record)
Top Letterwinner Lost (2006 record)
* - All-America honors
Here's a look at the Irish, by weapon:
Orlando (Brookline, Mass.) joins the sabre trio of Providenza, Ghattas and Stearns as Notre Dame's most battle-tested fencers, with each competing in the past three NCAA tournaments. The second-year team captain earned All-America honors as a freshman (10th at the NCAAs) and again in 2005, when she advanced to the epee title bout while helping the Irish win the NCAA combined championship.
"Amy is a fencer that I count on very strongly, not only for her bouting skill and experience but also for her tremendous leadership," says Bednarski of Orlando, who has served the past two years as the women's fencing team's representative on Notre Dame's Student-Athlete Advisory Council.
Orlando - who compensates for her smaller frame with a high workrate, clever tactics and effective timing - carries a 129-37 career record in regular-season bouts (44-14 as a junior) and was set to enter 2007 as the nation's 9th-ranked women's epeeist (for all age groups) on the USFA charts. The former U.S. Junior National Team member could be a top Academic All-America candidate in her final college season, with a 3.48 cumulative GPA as a psychology major.
A top-12 finish at the 2007 NCAAs would make Orlando (who was 15th in '06) the 11th Notre Dame women's fencer ever to earn All-America honors three-plus times, alongside fellow epeeists Anna Carnick, Meagan Call and Kerry Walton (each three-time All-Americans).
Hurley (San Antonio, Texas) could find herself in the mix for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team, which would add to an already impressive career resume that includes: winning the 2005 cadet (under-17) world title; becoming the youngest fencer ever to win the U.S. women's epee national title (as a 16-year-old, in 2004); winning the U.S. junior/U-19 title as just a 14-year-old, in '02 (also in '05); and being part of the four-fencer U.S. women's epee team at three World Championships ('03, '05 and '06). Despite being just 18 years old, Hurley entered 2007 with a noteworthy world ranking of 59th and was listed behind only her 16-year-old sister Courtney in the USFA's overall epee rankings.
"In addition to her tremendous skill and experience level, Kelley is an even tougher opponent to face because she is lefthanded and one of the taller women's epeeists [5-foot-9] that you will see in college fencing," says Bednarski.
"When you add it all up, Kelley has the material to be a superstar. Physically, she is very strong and is a very intelligent fencer who also is a fighter on the strip. One of the most important aspects is her ability to gather information quickly during bouts and read her opponent's actions, something that is very crucial in the slower-moving epee bouts. This is a talented kid who could be one of the superstars in American fencing - we are very excited to have her be part of our program here at Notre Dame."
Sophomore Kim Montoya is coming off a solid debut season that included a 36-7 regular-season record and reaching the title bout at the annual Penn State Open. The Las Vegas native already had a link to Notre Dame fencing from her club program, training under former Irish had coach Yves Auriol at the Fencing Academy of Nevada. Sporting a style that is a blend of epee and foil, Montoya could provide some key "swing bouts" in 2007 while combining with Orlando and Hurley to form the epee team's top-three.
"Kim is a smaller fencer in terms of frame but she's very patient and has great reaction time, with very smart bouting," says Bednarski of Montoya, who ended the 2006 fall semester with a USFA ranking of 23rd among junior-level (under-20) women's epeeists.
"She is able to knock off higher-ranked fencers but Kim still needs more bouting and tactical experience to find out what to do in different situations. She has some classy, technical moves and can be a deceptive fencer due to her quiet, defensive approach."
Senior Anna Rodriguez (El Zompapero, Guatemala) has returned to the epee squad after studying in London during the 2006 spring semester. An ambitious walk-on who won all nine of her bouts as a sophomore, Rodriguez could find herself fencing in some important bouts during the 2007 season - particularly if Orlando or Hurley are absent due to international event conflicts.
Adjemian (El Paso, Texas) enters his final season with a 90-34 career record and the experience of competing in each of the past two NCAA tournaments. A product of the Northwest (Ore.) Fencing Center, Adjemian leads a men's epee squad that could be the key component to Notre Dame's national-title aspirations - as the past three NCAA Championships have featured a total of only two All-America performances by Notre Dame men's epeeists (compared to a combined 21 All-America honors by the other five Irish weapon groups during that three-year span).
"We have some veteran experience now in men's epee and we will need those guys to step up with big seasons in 2007, says Bednarski. "I've always felt that Aaron has the talent to perform on an All-America level, because of his high technical ability and the elegant, modern style that he uses. He is capable of beating anybody in all of college fencing but the key for him still is focus and consistency. If he improves in those areas, you will see a great senior year from Aaron and probably a great year overall for us as a team."
Howard was on the brink of qualifying for the NCAAs in each of his first two seasons, during which time he compiled an impressive record of 80-17 in regular-season bouts. The local product (Granger, Ind.) will captain the epee squad for the second straight year and is one of several top Academic All-America candidates in the Notre Dame fencing program, with the six-foot lefthander carrying a 3.69 cumulative GPA as an economics major.
"Greg is a very intellectual battler who has been very successful with his modern style of bouting," says Bednarski. "His strong tactical preparation and quick reaction time make him tough to beat - maybe this will be the year that he can crack through to the NCAAs and help us try to win another national championship."
Kostka (Krakow, Poland) - who hails from the same hometown and club (AZS-WAF) as former Notre Dame epee standout Michal Sobieraj - had an inconsistent freshman year (43-11 regular season, 3rd-place at Regional, 18th at NCAAs) as he faced the challenges of adjusting to life as a student-athlete in the United States. One year later, the former member of Poland's Junior National Team could be one of the keys to Notre Dame being back in the hunt for the NCAA title.
"Karol is a fencer who has been ranked among the top-20 in the world for his age group and he is technically prepared to have great results, but he has to use his time and abilities more efficiently," says Bednarski, who has seen four fellow Poland natives fence for the Irish during his five-year tenure as the program's head coach.
"His experience level and talent have Karol positioned for great results in college fencing and we could see a breakout season from him." Senior Patrick Gettings (Lake Forest, Ill.) - who takes a 68-21 record into his final season - displayed his ability to defeat top opponents at the 2006 Midwest Regional, when the 6-foot-1 lefthander's upset of Christian Rivera ultimately kept the Ohio State All-American out of the NCAA field.
"Patrick has some great technical tricks and hits very strongly in his bouts, which combine with his lefthanded style to make him a tough opponent," notes Bednarski. "A key improvement for him would be in his tactical knowledge, by adapting to different situations and varying the actions within his bouts."
Jesse Laeuchli (Dulles, Va.) - the third senior on the men's epee squad - is a risk-taker who often will shift his tactics in mid-bout. His first three seasons with the Irish included a 73-13 record in regular-season bouts while exhibiting his effective use of the fleche (an action when the main force comes from a push off the front leg, often ending with a running attack).
The lefthanded Nott (Pittsford, NY) - who joins junior Rachel Cota as co-captains of the women's foil squad - steadily is emerging as one of the nation's top young foilists, after competing with Team USA at the 2006 Junior World Championships and entering 2007 ranked seventh among under-20 women's foilists (per the USFA, which ranks her 13th among all U.S. women's foilists). The Rochester Fencing Club product's quick transition to college fencing has included a 44-6 record in regular-season bouts as a freshman, placing sixth at the 2006 NCAAs and posting a runner-up finish at the Penn State Open in the fall of '06.
"Adi in many ways is a finished product, you just have to polish aspects of her fencing every so often. She is one of the toughest competitors I've ever seen - she will battle to the end - and is so technically advanced due to her great club background," says Bednarski.
"With her small frame, Adi has to be well-prepared from a physical standpoint and needs to be even more technically skilled in her bouting, with more complicated actions. These are areas where she has made key improvements, to go along with her great quickness and tactical intelligence. Being lefthanded already gives Adi an edge, but now I think you will see her be able to compete for the national title."
The spirited Bautista (105-25 career record) was an NCAA alternate in 2005 before turning in a strong sophomore season (58-18) that included earning a spot in the NCAA field, with a fluke collision in the final round ultimately leaving her a couple wins shy of All-America status (14th). Noted for her infectious personality off the strip and tremendous athleticism on it, Bautista has proven to be a clutch performer whose story is all the more noteworthy because her primary athletic background is in karate (she was an All-American as a prep, when she also began fencing as a sabreist).
"It's always a pleasure to have Melanie around - she's like a spark on the strip and around the team. Without her, the team would have a completely different character," says Bednarski of Bautista, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, but currently resides with her family in Sacramento, Calif.
"Melanie is just a great fighter with quick reactions and that unique style, with elements of sabre. She still needs some technical improvement but I think Melanie will surprise a lot of people this year. With her talent, the sky is the limit."
Sophomore Emilie Prot (Limoges, France) gained valuable experience in the world of college fencing during a freshman season that included a 56-12 regular-season record, winning the Midwest Fencing Conference title and coming just shy of a spot in the NCAA field. Previously ranked among France's top-10 juniors, the 5-foot-6 Prot ended the 2005-06 USFA circuit ranked 39th among the nation's under-20 women's foilists.
"Emilie is a very intellectual fencer who has good ability to read distances on the strip and to anticipate her opponent's actions," says Bednarski. "She also brings a great spirit to the strip and right now just needs more technical work and overall experience. Emilie could become one of our more unbeatable fencers and I think you will see big strides from her as she works with Gia on improving her form and mental toughness."
Fifth-year senior Colleen Walsh (Monticello, Ill.) provides added depth and experience to the women's foil squad, with a 95-31 career record (34-7 in 2005-06) and an NCAA alternate status (in 2004) among the highlights of her fencing resume. Walsh's academic accomplishments are even more impressive, with her 3.90 cumulative grade-point average including the unique experience of studying overseas at Oxford in 2004-05 before receiving her biology degree from Notre Dame in May of 2006 (she now is one semester away from completing her second degree, in anthropology).
"Colleen is a valuable veteran for us who obviously has much to be proud of with her tremendous academics. She has a very good hand technique in her bouting and I expect her to have the best season of her career for us in 2007," says Bednarski.
Cota (Altadena, Calif.) has exhibited strong leadership skills with the Irish and is returning to her role as a team captain for 2006-07. Slowed by a nagging foot injury in her sophomore season (29-6 record, after 37-15 in '05-'06), the 5-foot-10 Cota now heads into her third season as a member of what is possibly Notre Dame's deepest weapon group.
"Rachel is such a pleasant kid and a great leader for our program," says Bednarski. "She is most effective in her bouting when she can take advantage of her bigger frame - but she has the technical skill and classical style to be very successful in college fencing throughout the rest of her career."
Jedrkowiak (Leszno, Poland) again should be on the short list of top contenders for the NCAA foil title, after posting a pair of All-America finishes in his first two seasons (7th in '05, 8th in '06). The 6-foot-1 fencer affectionately known as "Kuba" was the runner-up at the Penn State Open as a freshman in the fall of 2004 and then won the event as a sophomore, each year knocking off Ohio State's Boaz Ellis (who won his third NCAA title in 2006) in the PSU Open semifinals.
"Kuba is one of the most technical and complete foilists you will see and always is well-prepared. It's clear he has spent a lot of time and effort building his technical repertoire," says Bednarski of Jedrkowiak, whose 86-19 career record includes going 39-12 as a sophomore.
"He's also very clever in his bouting and tactically can use a wide range of actions. By nature, Kuba is a very calm person but I believe that adding a little fight and fire to his fencing would make him dominant in college fencing while also lifting him up on the world level."
The 6-foot-2 Kubik (San Antonio, Texas) has an extra spring in his step, as he is reunited with one of his top club coaches, Kvaratskhelia. Kubik and his younger brother Steve were members of the Kanza Fencing Club men's foil team that brought home the bronze from the USFA 2006 Junior Nationals, with Kvaratskhelia cheering them on as their proud coach.
An intellectual and hard-working fencer who spent much of his freshman year transitioning to the new foil timing rules, Kubik compiled a 43-17 record during the 2005-06 regular season but had a disappointing 21st-place finish at the NCAAs. He since has climbed to 17th in the USFA's men's foil rankings (for all age groups, also 13th in the under-20 rankings) and placed sixth individually at the 2006 Summer Nationals while also placing third at the annual Penn State Open in the fall of '06.
"Mark is a very driven competitor and he has made steady improvements with the new style, by relying more on his footwork than his hands due to the new timing rules," says Bednarski.
"I think that Mark will make big strides under the coaching of Gia and he can become one of the best fencers in the nation. Mark has a great background in fencing - having lived in Germany and being around the sport as a youngster when his father Wendell was the coach at Air Force - so that gives him a great passion for practice and bouting, to go along with his great ability."
Senior Frank Bontempo returns to captain the men's foil squad, providing that unit with veteran leadership as yet another fencer with NCAA tournament experience (in 2004). The wiry lefthander had limited fencing experience growing up in the Pittsburgh area but is viewed by his coaches as being a classic talent who still holds plenty of potential.
"Frankie has the rare ability to complete many high-class actions, with an elegant style and the natural ability to move smoothly and unexpectedly towards the opponent," says Bednarski of Bontempo, whose 119-51 career record includes a 34-18 mark during his junior season.
"He is a very intellectual and emotional fencer but - with limited tactical training earlier in his career - his bout results often are inconsistent. Frankie always has been our most aggressive and athletic foilist and I think he will do another great job in leading the men's foil team this year."
Junior Diego Quinonez (San Salvador, El Salvador) returns to add further depth to the foil squad, after winning 47 bouts in his first two seasons (17-8 as a sophomore). Notre Dame's first-ever fencer from El Salvador, Quinonez will be aiming for more consistency in his results during his third season with the Irish.
"Diego has great technical ability and quick reactions but he also is an emotional fencer who sometimes can lose his bouting focus," says Bednarski. "If he is able to master this aspect of his fencing, he will see more consistency in his results and will be a more valuable member of the team."
Sophomore Alexander Grigorenko (24-5 in '05-'06) rounds out the top grouping of the 2006-07 men's foilists. Grigorenko - who trains at the New Amsterdam Fencing Academy in his hometown of New York City - is a "skilled fighter," in the words of Bednarski, who expects the second-year foilist to challenge for more bouts in dual meets as he continues to improve his technical skill and high-class actions.
Ghattas (Beaverton, Ore.) would have to be considered the favorite to win the 2007 NCAA title, after finishing as the runner-up in each of the past two seasons (the '05 and '06 champions both have moved on after exhausting their college eligibility). Currently listed 17th in the USFA national men's sabre rankings (for all age groups), the Irish team captain is nearing the end of his stellar college career that already includes a 131-16 record in regular-season bouts (including a dominating 51-5 as a junior). Another top-12 finish in the NCAAs (he was 10th in '04) would make Ghattas a rare four-year All-American, a feat achieved by just three previous Notre Dame men's sabre fencers.
"Patrick is one of the best talents I have coached at Notre Dame and I believe he will have the chance to be one of the top fencers on the national team in the future," says Bednarski, whose 13 total years with the Irish fencing program includes eight seasons as an assistant coach.
"It has been a joy to be Patrick's coach and to watch him fence. He's a very serious and hard worker, with such wonderful technique - he's like someone who is a virtuoso, with a style that is both aggressive and smooth. Patrick is able to maximize his compact frame, with quick judging of the distance, and has a great combination of timing, agility and decision-making. He also is such a pleasant person and great team captain, always willing to help others and lend encouragement."
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Stearns (Minnetrista, Minn.) joins Ghattas as a three-time NCAA participant, earning All-America honors as both a sophomore (10th) and junior (11th). Stearns has lived up to his All-America status throughout his career, with his various wins over top fencers including a key 5-0 victory over Ohio State's Jason Rogers (a member of the U.S. Olympic team) that helped Notre Dame edge OSU for the 2005 NCAA team title.
"Matt is a very fiery fencer who always has to be aware of controlling those emotions at certain times in his bouting," says Bednarski of Stearns, whose 109-28 career record includes going 33-10 in his junior season.
"He is one of the bigger sabre fencers in the nation but is surprisingly quick for his size, with the ability to make important changes of direction. Matt has worked very hard during his career while improving his technique and developing more actions to use in his bouting."
Thanhouser (Portland, Ore.) - who had a 41-10 record as a freshman, after following his Oregon Fencing Alliance club teammate Ghattas to Notre Dame - was one of the nation's top-ranked under-20 men's sabre fencers, with an impressive third-place finish at a 2006 Junior World Cup in Spain before being one of four fencers named to the U.S. men's sabre team that competed in the 2006 World Championships. Now a senior-level fencer (over-20), Thanhouser has surged to 16th in the USFA's overall national rankings for men's sabre fencers and could be poised to challenge for a spot in the 2007 NCAAs.
"Billy has a bouting style that is very similar to Ghattas, he is like a replica but with a few different characteristics," says Bednarski. "He has great footwork and is exciting to watch, a very emotional fencer. But now his focus is on controlling that emotional state during bouts. If he does this, I think Billy could become a great fencer on the NCAA level."
Senior Ryan Bradley (Warrensburg, Mo.) likely will fill the #4 spot in the men's sabre rotation, after compiling a 27-4 record during his first two seasons as a walk-on member of the team (22-3 in '05-'06). "Ryan has great physical potential and mental potential to be a quality fencer. He does not have as much technical training and experience but he is progressing quickly and can be a very significant part of the team," says Bednarski.
Providenza (Beaverton, Ore.) enters her second season as a team captain and is poised to become the first Notre Dame women's sabre fencer ever to be a four-year All-American, a distinction earned by five previous Irish women's foilists and foilist/epeeist Magda Krol. An inspirational leader who won the NCAA title as a freshman in 2004 (plus 4th in '05 and 9th in '06), Providenza has won nearly 90 percent of her regular-season bouts with the Irish (140-23, including a dominant 54-8 mark as a junior) and entered 2007 with a USFA national ranking of 10th among all women's sabreists.
"Valerie is one of the most talented fencers - physically and mentally - that we've ever had, combining great speed and range on the strip with strong decision making and her wonderful modern style. I think in the near future she can be a fencer for the national team, if she sets her mind to it," says Bednarski of Providenza, yet another Academic All-America candidate due to her 3.37 GPA as a psychology and Spanish double major.
While most may think that Providenza's first-place finish at the 2004 NCAAs may be her top collegiate fencing moment, certainly the most courageous and significant came one year later at the 2005 NCAAs in Houston. It was there that the two-time Junior Olympic champion battled through an untimely illness to turn in a gutsy effort that yielded a 19-4 record (she ultimately placed fourth) to help Notre Dame complete an historic comeback, as the Irish edged Ohio State for the NCAA team title by two wins (173-171).
"Valerie always has shown great dedication and that drive to be the best and she also has grown into a strong leader for our program. She will be a difficult fencer to replace and I would not be surprised if her final season is the best of her great Irish career."
Zagunis (Beaverton, Ore.) will be sorely missed in the more immediate future - namely the 2007 and '08 seasons - before returning from what she hopes will be a successful defense of her Olympic gold medal. The calendar year of 2006 was an historic one for Zagunis, who in the span of eight months: won the NCAA title; became the second U.S. fencer (male or female) ever to finish atop the point standings for the annual World Cup circuit; claimed the World Championship silver medal (no previous U.S. fencer ever had reached a World Championship individual title bout); and rose to the top spot in the FIE world women's sabre rankings.
As expected, Zagunis has dominated the college fencing scene at almost an unprecedented level. Her first two seasons have yielded a 75-3 record in regular-season bouts (.962 win pct.; third-best in ND women's fencing history) to go along with a 41-9 two-year mark at the NCAAs (including a 2005 runner-up finish). The former high school soccer player - who delayed her enrollment at Notre Dame to chase her 2004 Olympic dream - remains an inspiration to her coach and team, even in her absence.
"Of course, we will miss Mariel tremendously but this focus on her Olympic training and qualification is something she must do for the pursuit of true excellence," says Bednarski.
"Even when she is not here, Mariel's presence will be felt due to her tremendous ability and how professional she is in her preparation and training regimen. Her status as a world champion - and all that entails - has made a lasting and positive impact on the entire Notre Dame fencing program."
Sophomore Ashley Serrette (Orange, N.J.) set the Notre Dame record for women's sabre wins in a season (57-25) during her freshman year and rates as one of the most improved fencers in the Irish program. "Ashley doesn't have a lot of experience or technical knowledge but she has a great ability to recognize opponents' actions," says Bednarski. "She is an intelligent fencer with more sophistication to her actions and great reaction time. Sabre has become a very athletic weapon and she has done very well in her athletic training."
Senior Erin Housing (New Lenox, Ill.) rounds out the women's sabre veterans, with a 32-4 record in limited duty during the past two seasons (25-4 in '05-'06). "Erin can give a top opponent a lot of problems but sometimes she also is losing against someone with a lower level," says Bednarski. "She needs stabilization of the form and a lot of that involves mental work and focus in bouting. But we feel she will improve in these areas this year, which could provide the most bouting experience of her career."