Jan. 20, 2012
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in an ongoing series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2011-12 Notre Dame winter sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish men's & women's fencing teams, who will look to rekindle the magic that led the program to the NCAA title last year.
Coming off a scintillating NCAA Championship season in 2011, the Fighting Irish look to reload their roster in search of the program's ninth national championship and fourth under the direction of head coach Janusz Bednarski.
Notre Dame should be a dangerous opponent for any foe this season and a real threat to repeat at the 2012 NCAA Championships. The 2011-12 Irish squad will add a talented group of newcomers to the squad that will fight for the opportunity to bout on the strip. Furthermore, the Notre Dame staff will seem a bit different this year with the promotion of assistant coach and foil specialist, Gia Kvaratskhelia, to associate head coach. Notre Dame's returning roster for the 2012 title drive includes four All-Americans, combining for five All-America citations.
An International Flair
With the 2012 Olympic Summer Games in London just around the corner, the Notre Dame fencing program has four of its most distinguished fencers taking a season off from collegiate bouts to train for the Games: men's fencers, senior foilist Gerek Meinhardt (USA) and sophomore foilist Ariel DeSmet (USA), and women's fencers, senior epeeists Courtney Hurley (USA) and Ewa Nelip (Poland).
This quartet of fencers has accumulated 368 victories to go along with only 37 defeats and nine All-American citations between them. Their combined winning percentage, .909, would rank in the upper echelon of all-time fencing winning percentages at Notre Dame.
Meinhardt has already amassed a legendary fencing resume. He took home the gold medal at the 2010 NCAA Championships with his first-place showing in the foil. His championship performance came on the heels of a silver medal performance in his first NCAA Championship during his freshman campaign.
DeSmet took full advantage of his first full season for the Irish as he became the third Irish men's fencer to win the NCAA Championship in his freshman season and first since Charles Higgs-Coulthard did so in 1984. His 28-1 mark would rank him among the Irish foil greats in highest winning percentage with a .966 clip.
Nelip, who will fence for her native country, Poland, is coming off of a 43-8 season and a third-team All-America citation. Over her three years on campus she has amassed 125 wins to go along with only 16 losses. In her first two years fencing for the Fighting Irish she brought home two bronze medals from the NCAA Championships (2008, 2009).
2011 Fall Season
As the NCAA fencing season fast approaches come the waning months of winter and into spring, no greater impact can be felt on the growth of a program than the fall season, which gives a host of fencers on the roster a chance to gauge where they stand within their various weapons.
No greater case could be made for the much-needed fall season than for the 2011-12 season, as the Irish look to find new leaders in several of the weapon classes which were hit hard by both graduation and international Olympic qualifying events. Highlighting the fall docket were two chances to make an impression at various North American Cup (NAC) events as well as the Garret Penn State Open.
As has been the case in years past under Bednarski's watch, several top-flight freshmen will be given the chance to make an immediate impact on the strip and Ashley Severson is one who made such an impression at the NAC in Austin, Texas (Nov. 11-14). The talented epeeist earned a podium finish at the event, placing third overall. After piecing together a 5-1 pool record with a +18 indicator, the Franklin Lakes, N.J., native entered direct elimination as the 12th seed and defeated Oksana Samorodov (15-6) to reach the semifinals and guarantee her podium result.
The lone event that featured competition strictly amongst collegiate fencers was the Garret Open (Nov. 19-20), and the Irish were on-hand with a strong contingent looking to win their respective weapons championship. Men's foil, which can be argued as the strongest returning weapon for the Irish, saw Enzo Castellani and Reggie Bentley - both former NCAA Championship competitors and All-Americans - go one-two on the podium. Talented freshman women's foilist Madison Zeiss also earned a podium result as she placed third, while sabreuse Lian Osier (fifth), sabreists Kevin Hassett (sixth) and Jason Choy (seventh), epeeist James Kaull (eighth), foilist Nicholas Crebs (10th) and epeeist Michael Rossi (10th) all earned top-10 results.
While several fencers will still be given a chance to stake their claim to a rotational spot with their weapon, great strides were taken during the fall to determine which potential newcomers and veterans are ready to step up and potentially represent Notre Dame at the NCAA Championship.
The 2012 NCAA Season
With the learning experience and accompanying successes of the fall season now behind them, the Irish turn their attention to making a run at a back-to-back statement at the NCAA Championship, what would be their fourth such title in the last 10 years.
Much the norm for the Irish, a difficult regular season will prepare them for what will await in NCAA Championship competition. The road begins at the NCAA Midwest Regional, which will be hosted by Cleveland State University on March 11-12. The Irish will attempt to qualify the maximum twelve fencers each for men and women in an attempt to advance the maximum twelve fencers to the NCAA Championships.
Seeding at the NCAA Midwest Regionals is directly based off of individual records from the team events during the regular season, so many challenging bouts will take place over the course of the ledger in hopes of placing Irish fencers in the best position when the time comes.
The attitude Bednarski and his staff carry concerning winning every bout certainly carries over to the team. Last season, for the third consecutive year, the women's squad navigated through the regular season with a perfect 29-0 record. In doing so, the squad's now-89-match winning streak stands as the longest such streak in women's program history and qualifies as the third longest streak overall, 33 behind the men's 122-match winning streak from 1975-80. The men, while seeing their 80-match winning streak come to an end during the '10-'11 campaign, bounced back from the early season scrape to conclude the year with a stellar 29-1 record. This success translated once again to both the men's and women's teams starting and ending the regular season ranked as the top team in the nation.
The 2012 season gets underway in a bit of a different venue than years past. The men lifted the lid prior to the women taking to the strip as they headed out west for a showdown at the Western Duals, hosted by the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The squad answered the opening bell, posting a perfect 6-0 record, including two 18-9 results against national challengers Air Force and Stanford.
Both teams reunite this weekend in what serves as the women's season opener, the St. John's Duals (Jan. 21) in Queens, N.Y. The team then shuttles just down the road to New York, N.Y., the following day as they take part in the NYU Duals. As has been the case for the last three years, the Irish then head home to take part in the annual Notre Dame Duals on Jan. 28-29. The women open the festivities on the first day of competition with the men closing the show on day two.
The Irish regular dual-meet season concludes with a trip to the Northwestern Duals (February 4).
The traditional postseason docket then awaits the Irish as the Midwestern Fencing Conference Championships, hosted by Notre Dame, get underway on March 3-4. Last season, for the first time in the conference's 13-year existence, the Irish claimed all six weapon titles to claim repeat titles on both the men's and women's side. Following the Midwest Fencing Championships, NCAA competition gets into full swing with the NCAA Midwest Regionals before the NCAA Championship returns to the site of the 2011 Championship in Columbus, Ohio, with Ohio State serving as host once again (March 22-25).
Developing freshmen has also 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 four seasons, Bednarski's All-America honorees have included 12 freshmen, headlined by 2008 NCAA women's sabre champion Sarah Borrmann and most recently 2011 NCAA men's foil champion Ariel DeSmet.
As the 2012 season gets underway, here's a look at the Irish broken down by weapon:
The hardest hit weapon group by far due to International competitions, the women's epee class will see many new faces take to the strip this season. With only four returning fencers - Caroline Dikibo, Phenix Messersmith, Stephanie Myers, Diane Zielinski - there will be an influx of new talent from a large freshman class in effort to push the fencers to reach their championship potential. This year's freshman class adds a triumvirate of talented epeeists to the line-up; they include Nicole Ameli (Las Vegas, Nev.), Channing Foster (Washington D.C.) and Ashley Severson (Franklin Lakes, N.J.).
Zielinski is the most experienced of this year's female epeeists with 195 career bouts. In addition, her 136 victories are the most for any returning Irish fencer, men's or women's.
Coming off a breakout season, Dikibo looks to capitalize on the opportunity to gain experience and fence this upcoming season. Entering off of a season in which she collected over 84 percent of her career victories, she looks to continue improving and help lead this team to victory.
In her second season on campus, Messersmith competed in 23 dual meets where she claimed a 33-20 record. Her 33 victories in her initial year on the strip is one of the best in recent memory. This season she looks to fight for more time in the varsity line-up and take more of a leadership role within the team and the young weapon class.
The women's foil squad represents one of four Irish weapons that see a former NCAA participant return from last season. With the return of 411 combined wins, two NCAA participants and a host of other fine foilists, this women's weapon class is one of the strongest and deepest on the Irish roster.
Coming off of a 27-12 record and NCAA Championships berth, sophomore Rachel Beck looks to take the next step onto the podium this year. In her first year on campus, Beck surprised many with her talents and mental wherewithal to find herself as one of the best newcomers in the nation.
Sitting behind a four-year All-American (Hayley Reese) can't be easy, but 2010 NCAA Championship participant Darsie Malynn didn't let that get to her. Continuing to improve each and every bout, Malynn finished with a 30-10 record on the season.
Two foilists, Adriana Camacho and Radmila Sarkisova, look to bolster the line-up and be ready whenever they are called upon. Camacho looks to build on her stellar 36-5 campaign as a freshman, while Sarkisova broke the 100-win plateau last season with a 32-9 mark.
The Irish will then turn to several familiar faces as well as a newcomer to fill out the remainder of the foil rotation. Junior Grace Hartman is coming off of a 32-7 sophomore campaign while senior Christina LaBarge brings a 44-18 career mark into her final season on the strip for the Irish. The only freshman newcomer in the foil class is Madison Zeiss, hailing from Los Angeles, Calif.
Just like in previous years, this year's women's sabre class will be one of the deepest on the Irish roster. Returning over 350 bout victories spread across seven different fencers, this looks to be another banner year for the sabre weapon group.
Third-team All-American Lian Osier anchors this stellar group of returning fencers. Osier burst onto the scene last season with a 29-13 record en route to finishing ninth at the NCAA Championships. Her NCAA Championship performance last season, coupled with a gold medal finish by teammate Courtney Hurley, helped propel the Irish to one of its best showings in the season ending tournament.
Beyond Osier, the Irish don't sport any NCAA Championship experience, yet they have no lack of opportunities on the strip.
Beatriz Almeida, Julia Kohn, Abigail Nichols and Kathryn Palazzoto each will bring their particular skill set that makes them a viable threat on the strip and all will look to throw their name in the hat in an effort to gain entry into the 2012 NCAA Championships.
The women's sabre squad welcomes only one newcomer to the roster for the upcoming season as Marybeth Zier joins the team. Hailing from Franklin Lakes, N.J., Zier will continue to work hard throughout the season in an attempt to gain the opportunity at numerous events throughout the season.
The men's epee team looks to jump back into the All-America conversation this season after finishing just outside the threshold to gain entry.
The Irish return 2010 NCAA third-team All-American James Kaull who is coming off of a 30-9 campaign that saw him finish 14th in the 2011 NCAA Championships. Kaull will be joined by one of three returning fencers or one of the three newcomers that are joining the Irish this season.
Pinkowski, who is coming off of a 15-6 junior season, will not only bring his superior leadership to the strip, but also the ability to rack up points in the crucial moments of the bout.
One of the toughest defensive fencers on the team, Piasio will try to crack the line-up with a bevy of new attack techniques he has perfected over his first few years on campus. With his physical tools, expect him to capitalize on a 23-10 mark from last season.
Rounding out the returning epeeists, Rossi is on pace to have a breakthrough sophomore campaign. Using his quickness to his advantage, he sported a 24-8 mark in his freshman campaign. Widely considered a great athlete, expect nothing less than a big improvement for Rossi this season.
With the largest incoming freshman class of any weapon group, the epee class added a trio of premiere prep fencers in Albert He, Ryan McDonough and Dale Purdy. The group looks to make an immediate impact when they take to the strip to begin the season.
With the most experienced weapon class on the team and maybe in the country, the Irish foil squad looks to make another national statement in March at the NCAA Championships.
Returning All-Americans Reggie Bentley (second team, 2011) and Enzo Castellani (first team, 2010 - second team, 2009) will bolster the foil weapon and look to bring home the individual gold medal for the third year in a row at the NCAA Championships (Meinhardt-2010, DeSmet-2011).
Bentley, coming off of a stellar 30-6 campaign and just missing out on the podium at the NCAA Championships with a fifth-place finish, is set to move into the leadership role within not only the weapon group but also the entire team.
Castellani, the only two-time All-American on this year's roster, would have been a part of any other school's NCAA roster last season after compiling a 23-7 regular season mark.
The Irish have the luxury of returning three additional world-class foilists to the fold beyond Bentley and Castellani. Nicholas Crebs, Grant Hodges and Nick Kubik all will be given the opportunity to perform at some of the most intense events in the nation for the eight-time NCAA champion Irish.
Crebs took to the strip 30 times last season, coming out victorious on 26 occasions. With another good outing this season, he will surpass the 100-win plateau for his career.
Hodges and Kubik will be relied upon to add depth and toughness to this already stacked line-up.
The men's foil class will welcome freshman Gabriel Acuna from The Woodlands, Texas, to its star-studded line-up this season.
The line-up for Notre Dame's men's sabre class is as wide open as it ever has been in recent years. With six returning fencers being joined by freshman William Meckling, this year's group looks to make a splash at each and every tournament.
Returning over 340 collegiate bout victories spread over seven different fencers, this year's varsity line-up looks to be a free-for-all early in the season. Experience will play a key role early on as the coaches decide who will make their case to crack the varsity line-up.
The most experienced sabreist returning is senior Keith Feldman. Feldman has competed in over 110 matches in his collegiate career, winning 91 of them. The experience that Feldman brings to the team will prove invaluable as the Irish look to return to the top of the podium at the 2012 NCAA Championships.
Look for sophomore Kevin Hassett to use his outstanding natural speed and quick thinking to win even more bouts in 2012. In his first season on the strip for the Irish, Hassett sported a 24-6 record. He is gunning for nothing less than a championship this season.
The five other integral pieces that are needed for the Irish to succeed this season are Jason Choy, Alex Coccia, Marcel Frenkel, Carl Ianiro and William McGough. These teammates have combined to fence in 289 bouts, coming out victorious 225 times.
With the great experience and depth within the sabre class, don't be surprised to see every fencer on the strip in a dual meet throughout the 2012 season.