March 20, 2005
Note: The below feature is the third (see fencing news archive at und.com) to be filed on the Irish fencing team from the 2005 NCAA, as Notre Dame seeks to capture the program’s seventh national title. Look for several other features coming soon on other members of the team’s talented NCAA tournament competitors.
By Greg Touney
HOUSTON – In Texas, a place that has thrived on the success of the oil business, perhaps the richest reserves in the Lone Star State on Saturday were found within Notre Dame’s Valerie Providenza.
After suffering from food poisoning, a viral infection and dehydration that made her five pounds lighter, the sophomore sabre turned in a gutsy performance to help her team climb back into contention at the 2005 NCAA Combined Fencing Championships.
Fighting exhaustion, Providenza went 10-4 on her first day of action in Houston. Despite her win total being good enough for a third-place tie, the ’04 NCAA champion was not content with her performance.
“I came in hoping to win again this year,” Providenza explains. “But after getting sick and then coming here and not fencing as well as I think I could, I really don’t know if it’s still a shot, but if it’s anywhere possible I’m still going to try for it.
“Tomorrow’s another day.”
With her recent illness, Providenza definitely is competing against more than simply her fellow fencers. If anyone has the heart to defeat both these “opponents,” it might be Providenza.
Sabre captain Danielle Davis agrees.
“I talked to her when she was sick and told her, `Valerie, if you don’t feel well, you don’t have to fence.’
“And then I paused and neither of us said anything and then I said `Valerie, I’m lying – you’ve got to fence. There’s no choice. If you have an IV in your arm, we’re going to put you on the strip’.”
Chances are good that Providenza would resort to fencing with an IV if the situation arose – that’s how badly she wants the team to taste the same success she did last year as a freshman who won the women’s sabre title.
“The team winning was my number-one goal coming into the NCAAs,” Providenza says. “There are a lot of strong seniors that are leaving, so I feel that I owe it to myself and especially to the seniors to fence well.”
Not much has gone according to plan for the Oregon native in the past few days. In the early hours of Friday morning, Providenza started feeling ill and was unable to hold down any food or water. An early-morning call to her parents – who were in town for the NCAAs – brought Providenza to the hospital where a series of tests were run to check on what was ailing her.
“”It was really strange because I’ve had about four fevers in my entire life and I went through about three (Friday) night,” explains Providenza. “I had an ultrasound and luckily nothing was wrong.”
The effects on Providenza are clear to her and to her teammates.
“You can see she’s exhausted, especially with long attacks,” says Davis, who followed Providenza’s action on Saturday, giving her many words of encouragement. “When she walks back to the line, you can tell that she gave all the energy she had.”
“I’m definitely a lot slower and my reactions aren’t as quick,” Providenza says. “If you’re slow, the other person’s going to catch you. You need to change, and if you can’t, you’re pretty much at a loss.”
Providenza defeated Penn State’s Sophie Hiss (pictured) to win the 2004 NCAA title (all photos by Pete LaFleur, unless otherwise noted).
Despite the ill affects of her challenging pre-bout experience, Providenza is positioning herself for another run at the women’s sabre championship. That’s an impressive feat, considering her physical health and the increased depth in the 2005 women’s sabre field.
Not surprisingly, the two-time Junior Olympics champion has a history of overcoming adversity.
Last year, over a number of bouts, Providenza waged an intense battle with former Ohio State standout Louise Bond-Williams, the ’02 NCAA runner-up and a World Championship semifinalist. Bond-Williams – who is in attendance this weekend rooting on the Buckeyes – took two of their first bouts in 2004, a 5-4 win at the ND Duals and a 15-8 victory in the finals of the MFC individual championships.
Then, Providenza turned the tables starting with a 5-4 win in the ’04 Midwest Regional and a 5-1 triumph during the round-robin part of the ’04 NCAAs. Her 18-4 round-robin record was good enough for third in the standings and she was pitted, fittingly, in the semifinal against Bond-Williams.
Down three times at 12-8, 13-10 and 14-11, the first-year sabre showed the patience of a veteran to battle back and tighten the bout before scoring the final two touches.
An emotional Providenza was not finished though.
“I cried after that bout,” Providenza admits. “I had one more bout left, but Bond-Williams had been my toughest opponent all year. I actually sat down and cried because I was so happy and then I realize `Oh, I need to fence in 10 minutes – I need to stop crying’.”
Providenza has made it a habit of overcoming obstacles during her Notre Dame fencing career.
In the final, Providenza fell into a 7-4 hole against Penn State’s Sophia Hiss. Once again, Providenza pulled through by winning 11 of the final 12 points to take the 15-8 win.
The person who had shown the heart of a champion finally had the gold to prove it.
This year, Providenza has had to deal with the challenges that come with an attempt at repeating.
Two close observers of the sophomore have noticed the renewed focus evident in Providenza.
“I think that Valerie’s motivation now is much greater than during her freshman year,” head coach Janusz Bednarski says. “Last year she did well, but I think she was much more occupied with academics and beginning the new college life. This year she seems much more focused.
“It’s not the same Valerie as last year.”
Her sabre captain agrees.
“I think she wants to prove to everyone that it wasn’t a fluke freshman year,” says Davis, who provided a veteran presence to the young sabre squad this season by returning to the team during her first year at Notre Dame’s Law School.
Providenza (back right) combines with four fellow 2004 All-Americans – (kneeling, from left) foilist Andrea Ament, epeeist Kerry Walton, (standing, from left) epeeist Amy Orlando and foilist Alicja Kryczalo – plus freshman sabre Mariel Zagunis to give the Irish women an elite six-fencer contingent at the 2005 NCAAs.
“This year the competition in women’s sabre is a lot harder than it was last year, but Valerie is just as good a fencer as anyone in the field.”
Providenza – who joins classmates Patrick Ghattas and Angela Vincent and freshman Mariel Zagunis as the four Oregon Fencing Alliance products on the 2005 Irish squad – credits the “family” atmosphere of the Notre Dame fencing squad in helping her get through the NCAAs. She’s doing the best to return the favor by fencing to her maximum potential.
Countless times, Providenza has dug deep within herself to summon the strength needed to help the Irish reclaim the NCAA title.
You can see it in her eyes. Although weary and exhausted, they still show the grit and focus of a proven winner.
You can hear it in her trademark scream that she belts out after scoring an important touch.
You notice it when – after she completes her bouting and desperately needs rest to recover her strength – she stays to cheer on teammates still fencing.
Clearly for Providenza, the well inside herself has not run dry.