Jan. 20, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last in a six-part series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2009-10 Notre Dame winter sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we spotlight the perennial powerhouse Fighting Irish men's and women's fencing teams, which are coming off consecutive NCAA national runner-up finishes and looking for their first national title since 2005.
The Fighting Irish fencing team is set to open the 2010 NCAA dual season with two competitions in New York City this weekend. Head coach Janusz Bednarski begins his eighth season at the helm of the program on Saturday, Jan. 23 when Notre Dame takes part in the New York University Duals.
The season then continues when the Irish squad travels across New York City to take part in the St. John's Challenge. In addition to the host institutions of New York University and St. John's, some of the other teams Notre Dame will face this weekend include Penn State, Ohio State, Columbia and Harvard.
After finishing in second place for the second consecutive season at the 2009 NCAA Championship in University Park, Pa., the Fighting Irish have their sights set on the ultimate prize in 2010 - the program's eighth national championship.
Notre Dame is confident on playing a key role in deciding where the 2010 National Championship trophy ends up for several reasons including its deep roster of veteran returnees, some highly touted newcomers and an expert coaching staff led by Bednarski, who has already won two national championships with the Irish.
Notre Dame's returning roster for the 2010 title drive includes 11 former all-Americans, who have combined for a total of 15 all-American honors and two individual NCAA Championships. Seven of the 15 all-America honors were earned at the 2009 NCAA Championships, highlighted by foil runner-up performances by Hayley Reese (Crestwood, Ky./Oldham County) and Gerek Meinhardt (San Francisco, Calif.).
The men's and women's fencing teams are each ranked second according to the first USFCA Coaches' poll of the season, which was released Wednesday morning. In both the men's and women's polls, the Irish are ranked behind 2009 NCAA Champion Penn State. Ohio State rounds out the top-three on the men's side, while Harvard is ranked third on the women's side.
The Season Preview
Sophomore epeeist Courtney Hurley (San Antonio, Texas/Earl Warren HS) turned in a dominating performance as she captured Junior World Cup Gold medals in Tauberischofsheim, Germany; Montreal, Canada; and Helsinki, Finland.
Another aspect that Bednarksi and his staff focus on throughout the fall season is integrating the freshmen class and based on the performance of Notre Dame's newest additions, the Irish have even more reason to be excited about the upcoming season. For example, James Kaull (Washington DC/Woodrow Wilson) finished 33rd out of 211 men's epee entrants at the NAC C event. Abigail Nichols (Concord, Mass./Concord-Carlisle) made it to the championship sabre bout of the 30th annual Temple University Open and ultimately won the silver. Additionally, sabreist Lian Osier (Battle Ground, Wash./CAM High School) captured the gold at the NAC B.
"Individual fencers won medals and showed improvement in early season tournaments such as the Temple Open, the Penn State Open and at various NAC/USFA events," Bednarski said. "It looks like all our fall season goals were, in most cases, realized and the whole team is showing Fighting Irish spirit."
With a successful fall season in the books, the Irish will turn their focus to making a run at their third NCAA Championship under Bednarski. Such lofty goals begin with strong regular season play in order to qualify the maximum number of fencers for the NCAA Midwest regional competition, which will be hosted by Northwestern University on March 13 and 14.
"We need to qualify four fencers in each weapon to be competitive during the Midwest Regional," stated Bednarski. "Since Regional seeding is related to individual records from the team events during the regular season, we will try to get the best seeding position for our top athletes by winning as many bouts as we can."
The attitude Bednarski and his staff carry concerning winning every bout certainly carries over to the team. Last season, the men's and women's squads combined for a 63-2 record including a 33-0 mark by the men's team. It was the program's 20th undefeated season and their highest win total during an undefeated season to date.
The 2010 season begins in New York City as the Irish participate in the New York University Duals and the St. John's Challenge on January 23 and 24. Notre Dame stays on the road to take part in the Northwestern Duals on January 30 and 31 before returning home to play host to the Notre Dame Duals on February 6 and 7. Postseason play then begins on March 6 and 7 as the Irish also play host to the Midwest Fencing Conference Championships. With such a busy and competitive slate, aside from building up wins and individual records of the top fencers, the Irish coaches will have to get some of the younger fencers experience on the strip.
"We would like to give our back up or younger fencers necessary experience but it will not be easy since we would also like to win all the matches," analyzed Bednarski. "The coaches will need to calculate risk on the strip to prepare our freshmen for the future since that is also an important goal of ours for the regular season."
Developing freshmen has been a central tenet of the current Irish coaching staff and has helped create the depth necessary to challenge for the NCAA Championship year in and year out. Over the past two seasons, Bednarski's all-American honorees have included 10 freshmen, headlined by 2008 NCAA women's sabre champion Sarah Borrmann (Beaverton, Ore./Beaverton).
As the 2010 season gets underway, here's a look at the Irish weapon-by-weapon:
The women's epee team is led by the Hurley sisters, both of whom could challenge for the NCAA individual title. Kelley, the 2008 Champion and 2007 runner-up, will be looking to close out her Irish career the way it started: as an all-American. A 2008 U.S. Olympian, Kelley missed out on a chance to earn the elite status last season partly due to the dominance of Courtney, who turned in a 50-5 regular season record with the Irish. Courtney proceeded to claim the 2008 Midwest Fencing Conference and the NCAA Midwest Regional Championships before finishing tied for third at the NCAA Championship with teammate Ewa Nelip (Katowice, Poland/I L.O. Kopernika). Nelip will miss out on NCAA action in 2010 due to Polish National team duties.
With Nelip's absence, greater opportunities will be available for senior Vanessa Rosa (El Paso, Texas/Eastwood) and sophomore Diane Zielinski (Bernardsville, N.J./Bernards). Rosa has two years of experience to call upon, including an appearance in the 2008 NCAA Midwest Regional (where she finished 14th), while Zielinski posted an impressive 46-4 regular season record as a freshman.
"On the women's side epee is the strongest part of our lineup due to the Hurley sisters," said Bednarski. "But with Borrmann, Eileen Hassett and Osier, who do not want to be overshadowed by the Hurley sisters, we have another strength so it will be interesting to see how they fence during the season."
As Bednarski points out, Borrmann and Hassett (Beaverton, Ore./Aloha HS) will be leading the women's sabre charge. Borrmann, an NCAA champion, enters her second season of captaining the side and will be helped in her leadership role by fellow Beaverton native Hassett, who is a two-time all-American in her own right. In just two seasons, each member of the junior tandem has eclipsed the century mark in terms of wins with Borrmann boasting a 113-15 mark and Hassett a 110-22 record. After a fifth place showing in 2008 and following with a sixth place finish in 2009, Hassett is poised to make a run at the championship. Borrmann will be looking to return to the top of the NCAA sabre world - where she was in 2008 - after finishing 13th in 2009.
Borrmann and Hassett will be pushed by the highly touted freshman pairing of Abigail Nichols (Concord, Mass./Concord-Carlisle) and Osier. Nichols was the 2008 Massachusetts state champion and finished seventh at a recent junior World Cup event in Montreal, Canada. Osier is Notre Dame's latest prospect to come from the Oregon Fencing Alliance (where Borrmann and Hassett also trained) and will be looking to build on her successful fall season.
Juniors Conor Gettings (Lake Forest, Ill./Adlai Stevenson) and Jacob Osborne (Colleyville, Texas/Faith Christian School) will be relied on to add depth and grit to the epee lineup along with sophomore Chris Pinkowski (Simi Valley, Calif./Chaminade College Prep). Kaull, another one of Bednarski's prized recruits for the class of 2013, is expected to compete for a place at the NCAA Regional and beyond.
The men's foil squad is one of the deepest in the nation and competition for starts, NCAA Regional and NCAA Championship places should prove fierce as the lineup features four former all-Americans. The squad is captained by 2008 third team all-American Zach Schirtz (Rochester, N.Y./Greece Athena), who has posted a 75-20 record and proven to be one of the team's motivational leaders around the strip.
After an NCAA Championship runner-up performance in 2009, Meinhardt returns to lead by example on the strip. Widely considered one of the best fencers in the country, he will be looking to claim an NCAA individual title in 2010 and help the team reach its goal of bringing home the national championship. Meinhardt's classmate Enzo Castellani (Keller, Texas/Keller) will also look to repeat as an all-American in 2010, having earned second team honors in 2009 with an eighth-place finish.
Bolstering an already impressive foil lineup will be junior Steve Kubik (San Antonio, Texas/Reagan) and sophomore Reggie Bentley (Little Rock, Ark./DuPont Manual). Kubik was a 2008 all-American, while Bentley posted a 24-6 record as a freshman.
"The men's sabre team has started to grow with the improvement of Avery Zuck, who in the last year has become a candidate for the US National Team," Bednarki said. "Barron is also on the move and there is a young group within the squad of Keith Feldman, Marcel Frenkel, James Choy and others who are pressing them strongly."