Jan. 24, 2003
The 2003 season will mark the start of a new era for Notre Dame fencing, with former assistant coach Janusz Bednarski taking over for the retired Yves Auriol as the program's head coach. But even with that change in leadership at the top, there are plenty of experienced fencers back in the mix as the goal remains the same: capturing the program's sixth national championship.
Notre Dame's storied fencing tradition spans 25 top-three NCAA finishes, including every year since 1994. In the eight years since winning the '94 NCAA title, the Irish have come agonizingly close to claiming another title - including a tough lesson in 2002, when the Notre Dame men were unable to close out the championship after a strong showing from the Irish women in the four-day event.
"One of the great things about college fencing is the tremendous rewards that can be gained from competing as a team," says Bednarski, the former Poland national team coach who served eight seasons as a top assistant coach with the Irish ('95-'02).
"Notre Dame fencing always has been a family and we have a large group of seniors who realize what it takes to win a national championship. It takes a combination of talent and execution, plus the dedication in practice and the mental focus during the bouts. I think we have the team in place to meet that challenge."
Notre Dame returns 10 of 12 competitors from the 2002 NCAA third-place squad but the Irish have a battle-tested "replacement" for graduated sabre All-American Andre Crompton. As dynamic men's sabre Gabor Szelle (the 1999 NCAA runner-up and 2000 champion) is slated to return to the Notre Dame program after not fencing in 2002.
In addition to the significant depth of the 2003 squad - 12 veterans have combined for 19 All-America finishes, with three others making NCAA appearances - the Irish have a strong chance at competing for individual NCAA titles at five of the six weapons. Szelle joins junior women's epeeist Kerry Walton ('02) and sophomore women's foilist Alicja Kryczalo ('02) in giving Notre Dame a rare - and unprecedented - commodity of three former NCAA champions.
Two senior men's captains add to that top-level talent, as foilist Ozren Debic was the 2000 NCAA runner-up (fifth in '01, fourth in '02) while epeeist Jan Viviani was the NCAA third-place finisher in 2000 and '01 (plus fifth in '02, with a 52-18 career NCAA record). Two sophomores also have proven their worth as title contenders, as women's foilist Andrea Ament was runner-up to her classmate Kryczalo at the 2002 NCAAs while men's epeeist Michal Sobieraj posted an impressive gold-medal finish at the North American Cup tournament in Columbus, Ohio (Dec., 2002), besting a field that included three of the top-four finishers from the 2002 NCAAs (he also beat eventual NCAA champ Arpad Horvath of St. John's during the 2002 regular season).
Debic and Viviani have the chance to join a short list of four-time All-Americans, as just 18 previous Notre Dame student-athletes have completed that career feat - including six men's fencers and four women's fencers. Women's epee captain Anna Carnick also could post her fourth All-America finish and already is one of just six Notre Dame women's fencers ever to earn at least three All-America honors.
Notre Dame's greatest depth centers around three weapons with three All-America performers: men's foil (also senior Forest Walton and sophomore Derek Snyder), women's foil (with senior captain Liza Boutsikaris) and women's epee (also senior Meagan Call). The key weapon ultimately could be women's sabre, where Mazur, junior captain Destanie Milo and her classmate Maggie Jordan could be called upon for pivotal wins.
The 2003 season also will mark the end of three of the most successful careers in Notre Dame men's fencing history. Szelle (.944, 134-4) heads into 2003 with the third-best winning percentage in Notre Dame sabre history (also third among all men's weapons), Debic (.942, 114-7) stands fifth overall and first among foilists, and Viviani (.894, 118-14) ranks first on the epee winning percentage list (12th among all weapons). That potent trio has combined for a 366-25 (.936) career record and already holds the distinction of finishing among the top three at the same NCAAs (2000), with such a three-weapon NCAA feat matched just three times in the Notre Dame record book.
The 2003 NCAAs likely will feature no freshman competitors for the veteran Irish squad, a rarity for a program that has seen freshmen post six (2000) and then four ('02) All-Americans at the last three NCAA meets. Those six freshman All-Americans from the 2000 squad - plus Szelle, Walton and Fabricant - form the core of an overall senior class that includes 14 fencers who enter 2003 with a combined record of 983 wins and just 207 losses (.830).
The fencing program recently produced Notre Dame's first brother-sister combination ever to receive All-American honors (in any sports), with Forest and Kerry Walton's mother Yvonne likewise getting into the act when she claimed a bronze medal in the foil competition at the 2002 World Veterans Championships (matching Kerry's earlier finish at the Junior Worlds). That marked the first time in U.S. fencing history that a parent and child had medaled concurrently in any levels of World Championship competition, with Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" and USA Today both publicizing the rare family feat.
Here's a look at the Irish, by weapon:-
Notre Dame could boast the nation's top men's epee tandem, after Viviani (42-3) and Sobieraj (26-2) combined for a 68-5 record in the 2002 regular season - before a strong postseason that included 78 wins from the duo in 101 bouts (Sobieraj's overall win totals would have been higher if not for his five-week layoff due to a foot injury).
Viviani (Haworth, N.J.) served early notice that he is poised for another run at the NCAA title, after repeating as epee champion at the prestigious Penn State Open in the fall of 2002 (he posted a 15-8 win in the title bout vs. Princeton's Soren Thompson, the 2001 NCAA champion and '02 runner-up). Ranked 12th overall among U.S. men's epeeists (for all age groups), the clever tactician remains in the mix for U.S. national-team duty and is an Olympic hopeful.
"Jan has been a leader for this program since the day he arrived," says Bednarski of his third-year captain. "With his physical, quick-striking style and fierce competitiveness, Jan always will be up to any challenge you throw his way. He has great coordination and a good eye that helps him deliver those unexpected touches that can change a bout. It should be very exciting to watch him perform during his last season."
Sobieraj (Krakow, Poland) - a member of Poland's national-team program - is possibly the most talented young men's epeeist in all of college fencing, as evidenced by his gold-medal finish at the North American Cup in Columbus. That event included several top epeeists, led by Princeton's Thompson, Air Force's Seth Kelsey (third at the '02 NCAAs) and Sobieraj's countryman, Adam Wiercioch of Penn State (the fourth-place NCAA finisher). The lanky 6-foot-2 Sobieraj started slowly at the NCAAs but rallied for several big wins and a 10th-place All-America finish.
"Michal still is adjusting to the mental aspects of college fencing but the skills are there, with his speed and powerful, long reach," says Bednarski. "He has an unorthodox style but the most important aspect of his fencing is consistency. This is a fencer who could win the NCAA title as a sophomore, versus some very strong competition."
Notre Dame's depth is possibly the greatest at women's epee, with two seniors and a junior each owning All-America honors.
Carnick (Mishawaka, Ind.) - listed 16th in the overall U.S. women's epee rankings - continues to grow into her leadership role as a second-year captain and could become the first Notre Dame women's epeeist ever to post four All-America finishes.
"Anna is a very intelligent and ambitious fencer who has a definite presence - she knows her opponents very well and always seems to deliver when it matters most," says Bednarski of Carnick, whose 140-36 career record (.795; 46-8 in '02) represents the fourth-best winning percentage in Notre Dame women's epee history.
Walton burst onto the scene with a 50-5 regular-season record and NCAA title in 2002, after not fencing with the Irish in '01. Already ranked fifth among U.S. women's epeeists, Walton could make a run at becoming the first Notre Dame women's fencer ever to win the NCAA title in back-to-back seasons.
"Kerry is such a calm and clever competitor, which combines with her strength, quickness and physical style to make for a very dangerous epee fencer," says Bednarski. "She also has the mentality for coming up with clutch touches and never seems to get rattled. Those are great qualities for someone who still is relatively young in the fencing world."
Walton's whirlwind five-week stretch in the spring of 2002 included the NCAA title, the World Junior bronze in Antalya, Turkey (becoming just the second U.S. fencer ever to medal at any World Championship women's epee event) and a first-place finish at the U.S. Open Nationals in Salt lake City - completing what amounted to a "Triple Crown" in fencing for the pride of Londonderry, N.H.
Call (Eugene, Ore.) posted All-America finishes her first two seasons - including an impressive fifth-place in 2001 - and heads into 2003 with a solid 130-43 career record (.751). "Meagan provides another quality fencer for us at women's epee and she's shown she can excel in college fencing, with many comeback wins. She's a part of the senior group that will be so important to our success," says Bednarski.
Those in attendance at Drew University's Simon Center during the first two days of the 2002 NCAAs will never forget the display of domination turned in by Notre Dame's "A Team" (Alicja and Andrea) during the women's foil competition. Kryczalo did not lose, including an unheard-of +100 in total-point indicators during her 23 five-touch bouts, while Ament's only losses were to her teammate in the round-robin and title matchup. The 1-2 finish for the Irish included the maximum 48 wins and made Notre Dame the favorite to win the NCAA title heading into the men's competition.
Nine months later, Kryczalo (Gdansk, Poland) - who won 94 of her 97 total bouts with the Irish in 2002, including 76 of the last 77 - appears geared up to take on all comers once again, after winning the Northwestern and Penn State Opens in the fall of 2002.
"Alicja has a very unique style, due to her size, reach and fast hand," says Bednarski of the six-foot Kryczalo, who regularly holds her own fencing against members of the Notre Dame men's squad. "She trained under a sabre coach and uses her body and acceleration to create sabre-like footwork. You also never would guess what a warrior she can be out there on the strip, with her smile and friendly personality - but once it's time to fence, she is all business."
Ament (Gates Mill, Ohio) - who headed into 2003 with a No. 6 overall ranking among U.S. women's foilists - fashioned a 28-2 regular-season record in 2002 while also competing at various international tournaments. And opponents who might overlook the 5-3 fireplug, out of deference to Kryczalo, might be in for a tough lesson.
"Andrea would have won the NCAAs last season if not for Alicja - nobody else was able to beat Andrea," says Bednarski. "She is so lightning quick, with lots of moves and that quick step that can break her opponent's will. Andrea also is very mentally tough for her age and has experience winning so many tough bouts. I can't imagine having a better pair of foilists than who we have at Notre Dame."
Boutsikaris (Sparta, N.J.) adds senior experience to the women's foil unit, with the second-year team captain owning a 131-28 career record (41-13 in '02) and an All-America NCAA finish at the 2000 NCAAs. "Liza is an important leader for our entire program and can beat anybody in the country due to her quickness and smart tactics," says Bednarski.
Debic (Zagreb, Croatia) - who again should be in the NCAA title picture - could join the elite company of fellow foilist Charles Higgs-Coulthard ('87) and sabres Mike Sullivan ('79) and Leszek Nowosielski ('91) as the only Notre Dame men's fencers ever to finish among the top five at four NCAA Championships (Viviani also has such an opportunity). But for the driven Debic, competing for the NCAA title - both as a team and individual - would be the perfect ending to his stellar career (Nowosielski and Sullivan are the only four-year men's fencers in the Notre Dame record book with a better winning percentage than Debic's .944).
"Ozren is the classic foilist, quick and athletic, and he has developed an understanding of how to excel within the parameters of college fencing," says Bednarski. "We have so many veterans but 'Oz' is a special leader. He is very focused on winning that NCAA team championship and it's great to have guys like that leading your team."
The foil team's depth is boosted by the return of Walton (Londonderry, N.H.), who spent his junior year studying in Rome as part of his five-year architecture curriculum (he has a year of eligibility remaining after 2003). Walton's 70-19 career record (.787) includes winning 32 of his final 36 bouts in the 2001 regular season - before rallying for a ninth-place All-America finish at the 2001 NCAAs.
Snyder (Chatsworth, Calif.) rounds out the trio of men's foil All-Americans, following up his 32-7 regular season with a seventh-place showing at the 2002 NCAAs. Listed No. 4 in the Nov. 5 USFA rankings for junior-level foilists, Snyder has a wealth of international fencing experience (including 13th at the 2002 Junior World Cup). And if the fencing program had a "most inspiring" award for its 2002 season, Snyder would have been the runaway winner - after making a gutsy return from illness to qualify for the NCAAs, where he battled to an impressive freshman All-America finish.
"We like our situation in men's foil, with three fencers who have been through the battles and know what it takes to win at the NCAAs," says Bednarski. "Forest naturally was a bit rusty after his year away from the program but he still is a very powerful and highly-technical fencer who could mean big things for our success. Derek also has great technique, with the quickness and footwork that make him so tough to beat."
Szelle (Budapest, Hungary) is set to return to the world of college fencing where new rivals await, including the emerging duo of Colin Parker and Jason Rogers at Ohio State. Such a challenge could play right into the hands of the product of Hungary's great fencing tradition, for a fencer who - as just a sophomore - became the fourth Notre Dame men's fencer ever to compete in multiple NCAA title bouts.
"Gabor fills a big void and is a very special talent in college fencing," says Bednarski. "He has excellent technique and footwork and is a very sharp and quick fencer, which is unusual for sabre. Gabor also is a tremendous athlete who can excel at a number of sports. His coordination and eye for fencing, his composure and that big confidence that he can beat anybody - those all are valuable traits for our team."
Even with the timely return of Szelle, the men's sabre depth will be tested due to the graduation losses of both Crompton (a two-time All-American who placed fifth at the '02 NCAAs) and Andrzej Bednarski, the current coach's son and a three-time All-American.
Fabricant (Elizabeth, N.J.) - with 102 wins in 119 career regular-season bouts (.857) - will be expected to improve on his 14th-place NCAA finish from 2002, when his 39-8 regular season included several wins over All-Americans.
"Matt has a great combination of athleticism and technique and has made strides in his overall ability," says Bednarski. "The most important thing for Matt is consistency and control of emotions. Sabre bouts move so quickly that you have to be very focused - but Matt has that ability to be a great leader for us this season."
Milo (Knox, Ind.)-who assumes the leadership role of the women's squad, formerly held by '02 All-American Carianne McCullough- could be due for a breakout season, which naturally would conclude with an All-America top-12 finish at the NCAAs (she was 18th in '01 and 17th in '02). Her first two seasons included 86 wins in 105 regular-season bouts (.819; 45-8 in '02) while she headed into 2003 with a respectable spot of 26th in the overall U.S. women's sabre rankings.
"Destanie has great natural talent that allows her to make difficult combination moves and she will be very valuable, as both a leader and a competitor in the key bouts," says Bednarski.
Mazur (Summit, N.J.) - who has a year of eligibility left after 2003 - remains somewhat of an unknown, despite her 88-13 two-year record (39-9 in '01) and an All-America 10th-place showing in the 2000 NCAAs. A repeat of that performance in 2003 likely would put Notre Dame right back in the NCAA hunt - as the Irish totaled just two women's sabre All-Americans in the previous three NCAAs (compared to 25 from the other weapons, including the maximum six in women's epee, five in each of the men's weapons and four in women's foil).
"It will be interesting to see how quickly Natalia returns to her competitive form, because she has the talent to be very effective," says Bednarski of his fellow Poland native. "With Natalia, you have a very strong and physical fencer who can pull out the tough points. She knows how to win in those challenging situations."
Another veteran also could emerge at women's sabre, as Jordan (Maplewood, N.J.) has proved her worth with the Irish at two weapons. Known for her aggressive style and competitiveness, Jordan shifted from sabre to foil prior to her freshman season and ended up qualifying for the NCAAs - before having a solid 2002 season in which she fenced primarily sabre (her 83-25 career record includes a 25-16 sabre mark).
"Maggie is an important part of this team and can be a very successful fencer because of her combination of speed, strength and those quick hands," says Bednarski. "She still needs some time as she adjusts to a new weapon but she has the talent and will to excel in that transition."
Notre Dame's 2003 schedule will provide several tests to the current 59-match, regular-season winning streak owned by the Irish men (dating back to the 2000 season), highlighted by showdowns with Penn State, Stanford and Ohio State.