Jan. 22, 2015
When your team finishes sixth at a competition where you’ve finished in the top four for the past 20 years, as an athlete you’re faced with a choice – either ruminate on the failures of a season, or look ahead to the challenges of a new year.
The University of Notre Dame fencing program had just such a choice in front of them at the end of the 2013-14 schoolyear. Despite winning national titles in men’s and women’s foil – and claiming a pair of runner-up finishes – the Irish fell to sixth in the team standings. But instead of letting that affect their training in 2014-15, the Irish have vowed to avenge last season and improve to their traditional top-tier status. With several international combatants and an expanded roster, they stand poised to do just that.
“Our motivation this year is that it’s a new year – we want to win because we did not do so last year,” third-year epee coach Cedric Loiseau states. “This is my third season. In my first year, we got second; and I’m still mad about that. I couldn’t see past our finish that year, because I think we have such a great program, we just want to win it every year.”
Newly-minted head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia elaborated, saying, “Every team goes through these cycles; what with graduating seniors and their talent not necessarily meshing with incoming freshmen. That was the perfect storm for us last year. We knew the shape we were in with a huge deficiency in a few weapons. So what has changed from last year to this year is that the deficiencies we had in certain weapons, we complete erased. We brought in incredibly talented and accomplished athletes. We’ve changed the outlook of the team this year, in terms of the message being from day one, ‘we’re going to win it.’ We have the talent, we have the experience; we have all the pieces of the puzzle to be able to succeed this year.”
With the CollegeFencing360.com fencing coaches’ poll showing the Notre Dame women’s squad ranked No. 1 and the men at No. 2, Notre Dame’s fellow college coaches recognize the depth and bevvy of talent the Irish bring to the 2014-15 season too. The women’s team has earned the top billing in the poll on 21 occasions, while the men have been No. 1 on 16 separate occasions through the years.
Among those graduated seniors mentioned by Kvaratskhelia is four-time first-team All-American Gerek Meinhardt. Meinhardt, also a two-time Olympian and two-time NCAA Champion, capped his final year of eligibility by winning the Byron V. Kanaley Award – the highest honor bestowed at the University’s end-of-year O.S.C.A.R.S. ceremony – and being named an Academic All-American. Additionally, sabreists Alex Coccia and Kevin Hassett – himself a three-time NCAA combatant – epeeist Michael Rossi and foilists Ryan Murphy and Nick Kubik also graduated.
Despite graduating six seniors, the Irish men’s squads still have much to look forward to, as Meinhardt will remain involved with the program as a volunteer assistant coach while he finishes his MBA at the Mendoza College of Business.
Here is a breakdown of the men’s weapon squads:
As a foil specialist, it is perhaps no wonder Kvaratskhelia’s most familiar weapon class packs a powerful punch in terms of depth and individual skillsets. Captaining the squad is fifth-year senior Ariel DeSmet, who “is a focal point as a competitor and as a leader,” says Kvaratskhelia. “Ariel is someone who encourages and advises everyone, as a true captain should.”
Joining DeSmet is 2014 NCAA entrant Kristjan Archer, another fearless competitor, and Egyptian Hazem Khazbak. Says Kvaratskhelia, “Both [Kristjan and Hazem] are sophomores right now, but they both pack a lot of punch in terms of exposure on the international level. Kristjan has already participated in NCAAs, and knows the ropes of that competition. Hazem’s experience with the Egyptian National Team will add depth to our team certainly.”
Adding to the men’s foil roster is French transfer student Virgile Collineau. “Virgile, he’s an x-factor. No one knows about him, but he’s an excellent competitor,” admits Kvaratskhelia. The men’s foil squad also returns junior John Crumpler and adds freshmen Spicer Emge and Steffen Felt.
For Kvaratskhelia, men’s foil could stand to be one of their best rotations this year. “Our foil squad is very dense – and that’s a good problem to have! To have so many fencers to choose from, to represent you for dual meets and then the qualifiers and the NCAAs, that’s what this season is all about,” he states.
If ever there were a squad with too much talent, perhaps the Irish men’s epee squad would be it. With 12 competitors vying for spots in the rotation, for epee coach Cedric Loiseau, it is very much a numbers game in 2014-15. “We have an absolutely huge team by the numbers,” he confesses, “but obviously we don’t have much in terms of starters. We aren’t scared to work harder, and we as coaches know these kids will get better.”
One of the few returning starters for the Irish in men’s epee, senior Dale Purdy will serve as captain in 2014-15; “a big time Notre Dame kid,” according to Loiseau, “Dale is on of the hardest working guys we have here. He’ll push you to be your best, which is just what we need.”
Joining Purdy is 2014 NCAA Runner-up Garrett McGrath, who earned first-team accolades last year and represented the fencing program at the 2014 ESPY Awards in Los Angeles, Calif. as part of the Notre Dame contingent of men’s athletes who accepted the Capital One Cup in men’s sports for the University.
“Garrett wants to win the tournament,” states Loiseau. “Last year he wanted to win but wasn’t sure if he could. This year, his mentality’s different. He knows he should have won, and he wants to do just that – he is going to do that.”
Coming back from a torn ACL, sophomore Mitchell Revich and freshman Nicholas Hanahan are both new faces in the epee crowd for Notre Dame. According to Loiseau, Hanahan has huge potential to help build depth on the epee squad. The Irish also welcome back sophomores Mikhail Heber, Arthur Le Meur, John Pietrowicz and Conrad Sutter in addition to seniors Mark O’Dea and Ryan McDonough and junior John Poremski. Hanahan will be joined by fellow freshman Christian Aguilar as the youngest members in the rotation.
With the graduation of two seniors, men’s sabre is perhaps the squad with the most to prove; yet, the addition of four all-star talents will make that challenge much easier for returning sabreists John Hallsten, Billy Meckling and Ian Dwyer. “We have John coming back – he’ll be the only men’s sabreist with any NCAA experience on the squad,” Kvaratskhelia muses, “yet, he’s joined by Paul Cepak, Ian Jones, Jonah Shainberg and Jonathan Fitzgerald. Those four kids – any of them – could really give us a strong finish at the end of the season.”
Cepak trained at the Bergen Fencing Club with women’s sabre standout Francesca Russo during his prep career, and brings huge talent to the strips of the Castellan Family Fencing Center. Shainberg also maintains a high pedigree of experience, with a slew of top-10 finishes to his name in international competitions. Fitzgerald for his part has been competing at top-tier events since the age of 13, notably placing ninth at the Cadet World Cup in Konin, Poland and finishing seventh at the Pan-American Games in Guatemala City, Guatamala. Jones was crowned the 2013 Cadet Junior Olympic Champion.
“We are incredibly confident in our sabre squad and whoever ends up at NCAAs, I am absolutely positive they will have huge success,” states Kvaratskhelia in summation. “There is a very bright future for this squad and I expect nothing but domination from them this year.”
Hallsten finished 18th in 2013 and 13th in 2014 at the NCAA Championships, and earned the best record in 2014 amongst the men’s sabre squad with his 49-21 ledger. Fellow returnees Dwyer compiled a 22-9 record his first season with Notre Dame and earned a monogram, while Meckling won several key bouts for the Irish and finished 25-11 on the year, improving his career record to 72-18.
Over on the women’s team, not much has changed – but so much has been added. With 12 freshmen in 2014-15 – eight of them walk-ons – the team almost doubled in size from 15 (five girls on each squad) to 26 members this year.
“As with any elite program, the top-20 kids in the nation get recruited,” Loiseau explains. “Anything below top-20 we consider a walk-on, yet they are a substantial force and a vital part of our team. Whereas as walk-on in any other sport would be considered a stock part compared to a starter, here in fencing, our walk-ons are strong enough to win a bout or two on any given day. Those wins make a difference for our team.”
In addition to new faces, the Irish women are led by several key returning veterans. Lee Kiefer (two-time NCAA Champion) and Madison Zeiss (2014 NCAA runner-up) lead the women’s foil squad and are joined by juniors Sarah Followill and Nicole McKee. In epee, 2012 and ’14 NCAA entrants Nicole Ameli and Ashley Severson team up to captain the eight-woman rotation, while junior Johanna Thill – herself a two-time NCAA combatant – captains the women’s sabre squad. Ewa Nelip returns for her second season as a volunteer assistant coach as well, after serving in the same role in 2013-14 after finishing her eligibility and graduating the University in May of 2013.
Here is a breakdown of the women’s team by squad:
“Ooh la la, women’s epee is going to be interesting,” laughs Loiseau. “The reason for that is we will have three girls fighting for two NCAA berths, and all of them have fought together for years.”
Two-time NCAA competitors Ameli and Severson share captain responsibilities, yet not far behind is junior Catherine Lee. Lee had the second-best individual record in 2013-14 (44-24), behind Ameli’s 50-25 mark. Sophomore Eva Niklinska earned several crucial victories last year, helping the team finish 148-35 on the year.
“Nik-Nik [Ameli] has improved so much; I don’t think I can even find words to express how much she has improved in the last two years – she just exploded,” states Loiseau. “And Ashley [Severson], she has such strong credentials. She won medals with the U.S. team at the World Championships last season, she’s fencing the senior World Cup this year; she will most definitely get better this year. She’s starting to understand she’s a really good fencer, and I think her senior year will be amazing. And don’t look past Catherine [Lee]; she pushes both of them, and was getting really close in terms of talent-level last year before her injury. So she could contend for us at regionals too.”
Joining Ameli, Severson, Lee and Niklinska in 2014-15 is returning senior Channing Foster and a trio of talented freshmen in the form of Katherine Clarke, Marie-Anne Roche and Amanda Sirico. Clarke has appeared at several North American Cups (NAC) competitions, and is joined by U.S. women’s team hopeful Sirico. Roche, a native of Paris, France, honed her craft oversees in spite of the disapproval of school administators and helped the French women’s national team to several team championships across various levels of competition.
When you take a look at the Notre Dame program, historically, sabre was the weapon of choice, the Irish team’s bread and butter; not so anymore, as the women’s foil squad exerted sheer dominance over other teams in 2014 and shows no signs of stopping.
“Our foil team is a pretty large unit; expectations are high for these girls,” Kvaratskhelia says matter-of-factly. “I think if everything goes accordingly, and we are still healthy, we should be able to live up to our expectations. It’s hard to repeat what we’ve accomplished the last two years, but nothing is impossible with Lee [Kiefer] and Maddy [Zeiss].”
Kiefer may be the face of Notre Dame women’s foil, but she is quick to shy away from the spotlight, a feat easy enough to accomplish when one is surrounded by so much talent on one squad. Zeiss improved from eighth-place at the 2012 NCAA Championships to third in 2013 and finished second in 2014. Juniors Nicole McKee and Sarah Followill also bolster the women’s foil unit, making it “the most feared unit on our team,” according to Kvaratskhelia. McKee had the best individual record in 2013-14 with a 44-18 mark and made a name for herself as a fearsome foe to face in any arena. Followill finished the year 32-13, improving her career record to 52-17.
“When you have highly recruited stars, they come here with a track record of being an asset; they have the reputation of being pure winners,” confesses Kvaratskhelia. “Take Nicky [McKee] for example; she won as a freshman; she won as a sophomore. That intensity level hasn’t gone down, and it becomes contagious. Everyone wants to follow in her footsteps, and that is the attitude we promote amongst the team.”
Zeiss will serve as captain for the 2014-15 season, helping to welcome five incoming freshmen to the women’s foil squad. Among them are two international stars, Zoe Loh and Carolina Pereira, who come from Mississauga, Ontario and Asuncion, Paraguay respectively. Erin Dietsche, Reagan Fitzgerald and Kellsey Mone will also add depth in their first season with the Irish.
“If you build it, they will come.” This iconic line from the movie Field of Dreams is perhaps the best way to describe the Notre Dame women’s sabre squad. While they didn’t lose anyone to graduation at the end of 2013-14, they are perhaps the squad that most benefitted from improved recruitment efforts.
“For a couple years, we had sloppy recruiting; to be honest, we had to find a way to reverse that – immediately,” Kvaratkshelia admits. “Between last year and this year, we have had an incredible breakthrough. Not only did we get the number of kids we wanted, but we also got incredible talents in the process. This year’s freshman class will lay the foundation for the next few years to consistently be in the top four.”
Jumping from five members to nine in 2014-15, women’s sabre features a bevvy of incoming talent in the form of Russo – already an Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Fencer of the Week for her dominating performance at the Ohio State Elite Cup competition in October – and Claudia Kulmacz, in addition to Jamie Norville and Madeline Gallagher.
“Francesca comes to us already with a world championship title; she is one of the strongest athletes in the under-20 class in the world,” says Kvaratskhelia. “She’s been top two at several world cups and is making the medal rounds on a consistent basis. In my opinion, I think she aims for nothing less than the NCAA title this year – and she has that potential to win it all.”
Venturing over to returnees, captain Johanna Thill and sophomore Allison Barry are joined by junior Victoria Sluka and seniors Mary Regan and Grace Montemurro. Thill dominated in her second season with the Irish in 2013-14, logging a 51-14 mark. She also was the sole women’s sabreist to qualify for NCAAs for Notre Dame. Barry was close behind, with a 38-34 mark her freshman season. Montemurro, Regan and Sluka all won key bouts throughout the year, with Sluka notably going 15-3 at the season-ending DeCicco Duals.
“Johanna [Thill] comes back to us this year with two NCAA appearances under her belt; she had a bit of a letdown last year, but it was circumstantial because of the entire team’s struggles,” says Kvaratskhelia. “Johanna can and will be a great asset for us to make an NCAA run. Between her, Francesca and Claudia, the future is in good hands because our team is young, determined, and very talented. I’m sure they will work great as a unit because they train incredibly cohesively.”
Walk-ons and highly-prized recruits are not the only new things for Notre Dame fencing in 2014-15; after years in the Midwest Fencing Conference (MFC), the Irish switch to the ACC, the last of the athletic programs to switch over to the southern conference.
“With all respect to the MFC, we are really excited to belong in a true conference,” says Kvaratskhelia. “For us, now the big part of the ACC will be to bring home a trophy that is respected by the entire country. In going to the ACC, we know that Duke and North Carolina will be formidable opponents, but like everything we do, we’re going to give 100-percent effort towards solidifying our spot in the new conference as leaders.”
The Irish started their season earlier in 2014-15, putting on an exhibition women’s match with Northwestern on Nov. 14 which they won handily, 60-45. Two days later they traveled to Ohio State, where the men went 4-1 on the day and the women posted an undefeated 5-0 mark – offering a preview of things to come.
The remaining schedule for the Irish sees them traveling to New York City for a pair of invites at St. John’s (Jan. 24) and NYU (Jan. 25) before heading to Northwestern the following weekend (Jan. 31). Afterwards, they will host the season-ending DeCicco Duals (Feb. 7-8) before traveling to Chapel Hill, N.C. for the first-ever ACC Fencing Championships (Feb. 21-22). From there, the Irish get a brief reprieve before NCAA Midwest Regionals (Mar. 7-8) where they hope to qualify the maximum of 12 entrants to the NCAA Championships, taking place once again in the French Field House in Columbus, Ohio (Mar. 19-22).
Whereas Kavaratskhelia and Loiseau experienced the negative effects from one type of perfect storm last year, perhaps this season they are poised to reap the benefits of another perfect combination – a top-heavy, veteran squad mixed with hungry, talented underclassmen.
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