Feb. 9, 2015
Alan Markow, a senior fencer for the University of Notre Dame, stepped onto the strip at the Castellan Family Fencing Center for a competition in foil against an opponent from the University of Wisconsin.
Markow advanced to take away the space and priority of the attack from his opponent. After two disengages to go around his opponent's blade, Markow finished the match with a lightning strike, extending his arm and lunging for a thrust to the target area.
Markow's maneuver helped wrap up a Fighting Irish sweep, as the Notre Dame men's and women's fencing teams both rolled to 9-0 records in the DeCicco Duals, hosted by the University of Notre Dame.
Next up for both teams will be the Atlantic Coast Conference championships Feb. 21-22 at the University of Notre Carolina. The NCAA Championships, in which the Irish hope to contend for a national title, start with the Midwest Regional qualifier March 7 at Northwestern University.
Saturday and Sunday's action honored the memory of former Irish head coach Mike DeCicco, who led the Fighting Irish to five national championships in his 34 years at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame also honored its seniors with an emotional ceremony as they competed in their final events on the home strips.
"The seniors have been giants for us," Notre Dame head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia said. "They have been exceptional. The All-Americans, the national champions ... we're counting on them for the NCAAs. Their impact on the team has been outstanding in terms of being leaders, athletes and competitors--and socially they are incredible human beings."
Notre Dame's spotlight on the seniors wasn't only about athletes who will be hoping to get their hands on the national championship trophy. It was also about seniors who participated in the program on a club level, but still brought passion and competitiveness to practice and matches to help the Irish forge a national power.
"We're one of the few programs who still take walk-ons," Kvaratskhelia said. "The program is so strong. Their progression is a lot more rapid than anywhere else. Giving them an opportunity means the world to them. They're all so nice. They give everything for this program. We're really lucky that we can still do this.
"They are the emotional engine for this team. Who wouldn't be excited to be part of an incredible dynasty that has produced champions and Olympians? They work as hard as anyone else. Whatever we ask them to provide, they are there for us, certain settings, certain actions ... they are like a scout team. You can see their progression every year. They go home. They find a club to fence, and they keep competing. We help them take another step forward."
Markow said the DeCicco Duals capped an incredible Notre Dame fencing experience.
"It's very emotional, because this is my last meet," Markow said. "I'm very proud to be able to fence for Notre Dame, along with everyone on the team. It's tough, being my last meet, but it's also very exciting. And even though I won't be competing in the NCAAs, I want to do whatever I can to help the people who are going to the NCAAs be prepared, so we can win another national championship. We really feel like this is our year.
"It's a privilege and an honor to compete for Notre Dame. This has been a family for me. It's been a family for me the past four years, and it will be a family for me the rest of my life. That's the thing I cherish the most from this experience."
For Gabriel Acuna, Sunday's competition also was probably the last time he would compete in fencing.
"I love this team," Acuna said. "The past four years, there have been so many memories, upperclassmen who were ahead of me, now the new guys coming in, being able to give my advice to them. If they're depressed or sad, or they're doing well, I can say, 'Yeah, when I was a freshman. . . .' It's really nice to help them and give back. This community has given so much to me. I'll always be thankful for the experience. There are definitely a lot of emotions this weekend. It meant so much to be part of a national championship caliber program. It's not just something on paper. You get to know everyone, the top guys, it's a blessing."
Acuna said the Irish built strong bonds around fierce competition.
"You have intense tournaments, and we're here to win," Acuna said. "That comes first. But looking back, you can get sentimental. But at the moment, it's about competing and winning. That's always first on my mind. That's always first on everyone's mind. Competing and training ... you're here to win, you're here to make your team better, we're all lifting each other up."
Zoe Loh has been competing in fencing club events since the seventh grade in her native Canada, but nothing compares to her Notre Dame experience.
"This experience has been completely different from what I had in a club," Loh said. "It's my family now. Training here every day, I'm getting a lot better because of this."
Notre Dame's resources have helped Loh take her game to the top levels.
"We have one of the best coaches in the nation in Gia," Loh said. "We also have a really strong program for the fencers with the trainers, sports nutritionists, sports psychologists . . . it's all there for us to use. It really makes a difference."
Erin Dietsche fenced in high school and decided to walk on to the Notre Dame team.
"Overall, it's been really great," Dietsche said of the Irish fencing experience. "Coming in as a walk-on, it's allowed me to really grow as a fencer. I didn't expect to be able to fence on this team, and I've been able to. I think they see the potential in everyone, and that's really important."
Dietsche said the closeness of the Irish fencing program has stood out for her.
"It's great to see everyone be able to participate and fence and show what they've got," Dietsche said. "It's really great having the whole team compete. Everybody is really supportive of each other. We've really grown as a family. I think the community and the family atmosphere in fencing is so wonderful. We're all here to support each other. It's very special to be part of that."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent