May 2, 2017
By Joanne Norell
NOTRE DAME, Ind. — After more than a month to soak in the tremendous success of the 2016-17 season, the University of Notre Dame fencing team gathered for the final time Tuesday to reflect on and celebrate its run to its ninth NCAA Championship at its annual team banquet at Club Naimoli.
The Irish combined dinner with its team award ceremony, handing out 21 total individual honors. The 2017 NCAA Championship trophy took center stage, however, as the current Irish squad took advantage of the opportunity to revel together one last time.
The ceremony opened with a few words from Vice President and James E. Rohr Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick, who extolled the group for its resilience and embodiment of the department’s five pillars — excellence, education, faith, community and tradition.
“You embody all our values as well and as prominently as any program at this university,” Swarbrick said. “It’s for that, more than the championship hardware itself, that I want to thank you.”
Following dinner, head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia addressed the assembly, emphasizing the 2017 team’s unique attributes. Apart from the dominating nature by which the Irish took home the national title — biggest margin of victory of the program’s nine titles, first place in each weapon category, first place in each gender — Kvaratskhelia noted that what set this team apart from any other was its love for and commitment to one another.
“Everyone — everyone — deserves the credit for this victory,” Kvaratskhelia said, referring not just to the NCAA qualifiers, but to the entirety of the roster. “It was all about every single one of you guys being part of this group who made us better. … We achieved a closeness, a bond, that could not be broken, and that was unprecedented. Every team has a legacy and you guys were one unit with one breath.”
Senior women’s foilist Lee Kiefer took home the most hardware of the bunch, earning the Monogram Club Most Valuable Player award for women’s fencing, as well as the team’s women’s foil MVP honor. She rounded out her haul with the Walter M. Langford Memorial Award, which is given to the Notre Dame fencer who epitomizes the very best in sportsmanship, leadership and teamwork — the true Notre Dame student-athlete.”
Kiefer made Notre Dame, collegiate, and American fencing history this season, becoming the first Irish student-athlete to win four national championships in the same event, and just the third four-time champion in collegiate fencing history. On the national level, she became the first American women’s foilist to earn a No. 1 world ranking by the International Fencing Federation, and became the first American woman to win two Grand Prix gold medals
Freshman epeeist Ariel Simmons was named the men’s fencing Monogram Club MVP and men’s epee MVP after a spectacular freshman campaign in which he won an Atlantic Coast Conference Championship, was named the ACC Men’s Fencer of the Year for Epee and became a First Team All-American after a third-place finish at the NCAA Championship.
The team also recognized junior Francesca Russo (women’s sabre), sophomore Amanda Sirico (women’s epee), senior Kristjan Archer (men’s foil) and junior Jonah Shainberg (men’s sabre), who were also named squad MVPs. Russo earned her second national sabre championship in 2017, while Sirico was also a First Team All-American. Archer and Shainberg were both Second Team All-American honorees.
Next came a set of awards presented to fencers from each weapon squad “who best represents his/her team and University on and off the strip.” Awards are named after former student-athletes, coaches and friends of the program who made a significant impact to the Irish fencing culture.
The Steve Donlon Award for men’s epee went to senior Nicholas Hanahan; the John Crikelair Award for men’s foil went to sophomore Axel Kiefer; and the Dan Mulligan Award for men’s sabre went to Jonah Shainberg. For the women, the Polly DeCicco/Georgette Auriol Award for women’s epee was award to senior Eva Niklinska; junior Reagan Fitzgerald and sophomore Sabrina Massialas shared the Alice “Dit” Langford Award for women’s foil; and Jamie Norville snared the Janusz Bednarski Award for women’s sabre.
The DeCicco/Langford Award, this season shared by junior men’s foilist Hazem Khazbak and freshman men’s epeeist Zachary Zeller, is given to "that mainstay of the team who inspires his teammates in victory, consoles them in defeat, and is there for Monday's practice to push them to further achievement.”
The final award, the Ted Hodges Award, is one that is not awarded annually, but is periodically given to a fencer “who, when faced with adversity, did not merely endure, but prevailed.” Khazbak and freshman women’s foilist Samantha Viqueira took home the honor.
Joanne Norell, athletics communications assistant at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2014 and coordinates communications efforts for the Notre Dame women's soccer, men's tennis, women's tennis and fencing programs. Norell is a 2011 graduate of Purdue University and earned her master's degree from Georgetown University in 2013.