Note: This story will appear in this week’s issue of Gameday Magazine, the official football gameday program. Prior to the Notre Dame-Stanford football game on Saturday, the Irish fencing program will hold its national championship ring ceremony in the Monogram Room of the Joyce Center and the team will be honored on the field during the first half.
After the dust had settled, when the band, cheerleaders and fellow students had wandered home for the night and the University of Notre Dame fencing program returned to the Castellan Family Fencing Center following its national championship welcome party in March 2017, the Irish had just two items of business left to attend to.
First, they would tuck that shiny new championship trophy into its new home between the six Atlantic Coast Conference Championship trophies (three men’s and three women’s) already adorning the team room.
Second, they reset the countdown clock outside their locker rooms — setting their sights on the next year’s NCAA Championships, just 361 days away.
What developed that evening, before their bags were unpacked or the engine of the bus that carried that team and trophy home from Indianapolis was cooled, was the mantra that would carry the Irish toward a repeat performance in 2018:
Humble and hungry.
And they set the tone right from the start.
“It was an incredible emotional high in Indianapolis (in 2017),” head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia said. “When they came back in August, everyone showed up in great shape. We did Navy SEALs training (for the second straight year) and they just punished it. They were ready from the get-go.
“We reset the clock and had one single goal with the mindset of ‘humble and hungry,’ and we really stayed true to that.”
The Notre Dame fencing program had not been without adversity when Kvaratskhelia took over the program in 2014. The team had won its last NCAA title three years prior, in 2011, but finished sixth at the national championships in ’14, the first time the program had finished that far behind the lead. In 2016, the Irish placed fifth nationally, once again leaving a sour taste in their mouths.
All of that changed with the 2016-17 season. After a few disappointing dual losses early in the year caught the attention of the team’s senior leadership, the Irish regrouped and cruised through the remainder of the regular season, with the women’s team posting a 35-4 overall record while the men went 30-8. The Irish captured to their third straight ACC Championship titles in both genders, earned five individual ACC Championships, qualified the maximum 12 fencers to compete at the NCAA Championships and led wire-to-wire in capturing the team title and two individual crowns (Lee Kiefer in women’s foil and Francesca Russo in women’s sabre).
The best part? The Irish returned nearly every member of that championship roster. Of the 12 student-athletes that fenced for the title in 2017 (two per weapon, per gender), 10 returned for the 2017-18 season.
The goal, then, became not to defeat any particular team en route to a repeat performance. The Irish had set a standard and, with that experience under their belt, endeavored to improve upon it.
“Our goal was to defeat the previous team’s record, to defeat the previous team’s work ethic,” Kvaratskhelia said. “We wanted to improve in every aspect because we had a benchmark. What can you do to make it better?”
They did just that — for the most part. Having scored 186 points during their 2017 NCAA Championship run, the Irish tallied 185 in 2018 — but with two fewer bouts fenced because an opposing men’s foilist withdrew from the field. Nine Notre Dame fencers became All-Americans in 2017. The Irish counted 10 more All-America honorees — including men’s foil champion Nick Itkin; first-teamers Axel Kiefer, Ariel Simmons, Sabrina Massialas, Elyssa Kleiner, Amanda Sirico and Francesca Russo; and second-teamers Nicholas Hanahan, Jonah Shainberg and Tara Hassett — among their ranks when they repeated in 2018.
“Winning is the most amazing feeling,” Kvaratskhelia said. “Experienced once, you want to relive those emotions and moments with your teammates. … The idea was: bigger, stronger, faster. If we came home with the trophy, it would just be a bonus at the end.”
The tournament spanned four days from March 22-25 at Penn State’s Multi-Sport Facility, featuring two days of women’s individual competition followed by two days for the men. Each student-athlete fenced 23 five-touch bouts — a marathon in the fencing world — with each win contributing to the team’s overall score (fencing has been a combined men’s and women’s title since 1990) and the top four individuals advancing to direct elimination.Despite the seven-hour drive between Notre Dame and Penn State, the Irish boasted the loudest cheering section at NCAAs as the majority of the 64-person roster made the trip to State College.
As the weekend wore on, the Irish continued to grow their lead, from tied for first after day one, to a six-point lead after women’s fencing concluded, to a 17-point cushion after the third day. The Irish finished 15 points ahead of Columbia, which was enough for the Irish to clinch early in the fifth round of the men’s round robin when Simmons defeated Johns Hopkins’ Tiger Gao.
The Irish women sent four fencers to the podium. Kleiner and Massialas met in the women’s foil semifinal after earning the second and third seeds, respectively, and ensuring neither would go home with less than bronze. Veteran Massialas went on to advance to the final, snaring silver in the effort, while Kleiner became a first-team All-American in her first outing at the national meet. In women’s epee, Sirico registered 20 bout wins and claimed the bronze for the second straight season, while two-time women’s sabre champion Russo also captured bronze to become a four-time All-American.
The men were equally as impressive. Itkin’s title run was the first for an Irish men’s fencer since Gerek Meinhardt also won the men’s foil crown in 2014. The freshman — who went onto become the first American to win individual Junior World (FIE), Division I (U.S. Fencing) and NCAA Championship titles in the same season — had company on the podium in junior Axel Kiefer, who picked up his second career bronze in the event. Simmons also repeated as a bronze medalist, finishing third the year before.
To hear Kvaratskhelia tell it, the Irish did it (again) by developing a culture of toughness. That adversity? The Irish still experienced plenty in 2018. For the first time since joining the ACC, neither men’s nor women’s team won the conference title. Massialas — who, again, turned in her best career performance in capturing the silver medal — insisted on fencing through two injuries and provided a boost of inspiration to the rest of the team.
“The toughness of the team was probably the most important factor when combined with the talent and preparation that got us there,” Kvaratskhelia said. “We used toughness as one of our core values to begin the year. It wasn’t about technical development or even the result. Can we be tough every single day, and win the day and give your absolute best? That’s where toughness develops, if you’re pushing the boundaries every single time you’re on the floor. If you replicate that every single day, you have a result at the end of the season. The kids were relentless and fearless.”
The Irish will lose a bit more when the 2018-19 season begins. Eighteen seniors departed with graduation in May, including four NCAA participants — Russo, Hanahan, Shainberg and Jonathan Fitzgerald — and five of the team’s six captains — Russo, Hanahan, Shainberg, Hazem Khazbak and Marie-Anne Roche.
“We called that class a turn-around class, even before winning a championship,” says Kvaratskhelia. “We recruited that class to bring Notre Dame fencing back to what it is supposed to be. Those kids were talented; they had charisma; they were incredible leaders. It took us two years to get them to what they could achieve, but it really turned Notre Dame fencing around. They were meant to be champions.”
But the future looks bright to Kvaratskhelia, who has continued reloading with recruiting classes rivaling other national fencing powers.
“We’re in a good place with stability, confidence,” he says. “We’ve recruited for four consecutive years on par with the competition and we know we have athletes with talent to compete for the highest places. We have confidence now because we’ve done it a couple of times. It doesn’t mean we’re going to do it again, but we’ve done something right to get to that point.”
If the last two years are any indication, Kvaratskhelia and the Irish certainly have.