March 20, 2005
Notre Dame’s six entrants in the women’s portion of the NCAA Combined Fencing Championships lived up to their top-ranked billing in Sunday’s final rounds of bouts, as the Irish blitzed their competition for a 44-10 record that lifted Notre Dame past Ohio State (173-171) and delivered the program’s seventh national title. Three-time NCAA foil champion Alicja Kryczalo (who would lose an hour or so later in the ’05 title bout) fittingly fenced Notre Dame’s final bout of the tournament and won to clinch at least a share of the team title. The Buckeyes still had four bouts remaining and dropped two of them to provide the final cushion.
Notre Dame qualified only 11 of the maximum 12 total entrants (five men, six women) in the four-day event but the Irish met the challenge, becoming the first fencing program ever to win the NCAA title without the full allotment of fencers. Ohio State – which also qualified just 11 fencers – held a 24-point cushion over Notre Dame (then in fourth place) after the men’s bouts had concluded on Friday. But the Irish knew Ohio State would have just five fencers for the women’s bouts and that factor – along with an impressive display by the Notre Dame women – combined to cause a steady leak in the Buckeyes cushion, ultimately leading to a decisive stream of Irish wins in the closing rounds.
The Irish cut the deficit versus Ohio State from 24 to 13 on Saturday and had 54 bouts on Sunday to make up the difference (OSU had just 45 bouts on the final day).
St. John’s (the only team that qualified the maximum 12 fencers) ended up third with 162 points, followed by Penn State (145), Columbia (137) and Harvard (134).
The individual semifinals, third-place bouts and finals followed the round-robin portion of the event (which determine the team standings), with those closing bouts seeming almost anticlimactic after Notre Dame’s sprint to the title. Notre Dame’s 2004 team was the first ever to send a fencer to the title bout in all three weapons and the ’05 squad matched that, with Kryczalo, sophomore epeeist Amy Orlando and freshman sabre Mariel Zagunis each losing in their respective finals. Sophomore sabre Valerie Providenza – who combined with Zagunis to go 17-1 on Sunday and finish atop the standings for the 23 round-robin bouts (Zagunis 21-2, Providenza 19-4) – also reached the semifinals and finished fourth, an impressive showing for the ’04 NCAA champion after battling through illness that had sent her to the hospital on Friday.
While Notre Dame’s sabre dominance was clear for all to see, it was the effort of the epeeists that ultimately helped complete the comeback. Orlando and fifth-year veteran Kerry Walton (the ’02 champion and ’04 runner-up) had struggled to a 13-15 record in Saturday’s bouts before combining for just a 3-3 record in Sunday’s opening round. As each bout took on more and more significance, the epeeists responded with an 11-1 closing record that included 10 straight wins. Orlando ended the day with an 8-1 mark that vaulted her from 11th into 4th (16-7) while Walton was 6-3 on Sunday to end up 14th (11-12) and just one win shy of her fourth All-America honor.
Kryczalo was unbeaten on Sunday (9-0) to finish atop the round-robin standings (21-2) for the third time in her career while besting the Notre Dame record for career wins in the NCAA round-robin (84-8; four better than Sara Walsh’s 80-12 from ’96-’99).
Her classmate and fellow four-time All-American Andrea Ament – completing a season-long battle with a nagging ankle injury – actually had half of Notre Dame’s losses on Sunday (4-5) but still finished 7th at 15-8. Kryczalo and Ament joined senior men’s epeeist Michal Sobieraj among the elite list of Notre Dame’s all-time four-year All-Americans, a group that now includes five women’s foilists, four men’s foilists, three men’s sabres, two men’s epeeists and one multi-weapon women’s fencer (15 total). It marks just the second time in the program’s history that three classmates finished together as four-time All-Americans (also Walsh, fellow foilist Myriah Brown and sabre Luke La Valle in ’99).
In the six seasons since women’s sabre made its debut on the NCAA level, it would be hard to find a six-fencer women’s fencing unit that is more accomplished and formidable than the group of Irish competitors who took to the strips this weekend. Each of the six has appeared in at least one NCAA title bout, combining for five NCAA titles, six runner-up finishes, a 3rd-place and a 4th-place (13 combined trips to the semifinals).
Notre Dame’s other NCAA fencing titles include three under the initial men’s format (’77, ’78, ’86), the ’87 women’s title, and combined titles in ’94 and ’03. The Irish are the only team to win multiple titles since 2000 and have won the NCAAs twice in a three-year (or better) span for the third time in the program’s history.
The Irish totaled a program-best five finalists and six semifinalists over the course of the men’s and women’s competitions, with Sobieraj (18-5 round-robin) earlier claiming the men’s epee title while sophomore Patrick Ghattas (18-5) was the sabre runner-up. Freshman foilist Jakub Jedrkowiak (7th; 15-8) and sophomore sabre Matt Stearns (10th; 14-9) also earned All-America honors and sophomore epeeist Aaron Adjemian rounded out the Irish contingent with what turned out to be five very crucial wins.
Zagunis registered an easy semifinal win over Ohio State’s Siobhan Byrne (15-5) but the ’04 Olympic gold medalist dropped a 15-11 NCAA title bout to her U.S. National teammate Emily Jacobson of Columbia. Zagunis lost just three bouts in the entire college regular-season and postseason (60-4), with three of those losses coming vs. Jacobson (also at the NYU Duals and in Sunday’s round-robin).
Providenza beat Jacobson in the round-robin and nearly beat her in the semifinal rematch (13-15) before falling to Byrne in the third-place bout (11-15).
Kryczalo fell just short of becoming the third fencer (and 30th Division I athlete) ever to win the same NCAA event four times, besting Erzsebet Garay of St. John’s in a 15-8 semifinal before losing to Harvard’s Emily Cross in the 15-5 final.
Orlando continued her surge by posting her ninth straight win in a 15-5 semifinal versus Columbia’s Holly Buechel. The 5-foot-5 Orlando then failed to fill the tall order of beating Wayne State’s 6-foot-1 Anna Garina (who also won in ’04) in the 15-touch title bout (6-15), although Orlando did beat Garina in the ’03 and ’04 NCAA round-robin bouts (5-touch).