Nov. 4, 2016
By Joanne Norell
NOTRE DAME, Ind. — The goals never change for the University of Notre Dame fencing program.
The Fighting Irish fencing squad is a perennial contender, aiming for titles at the highest level of collegiate fencing. That’s why a fifth-place finish at last year’s NCAA Championships was cause for reflection more than celebration for head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia.
But as the Irish return a robust blend of talent, youth and experience, Kvaratskhelia is looking to get his squad back in the national title conversation by emphasizing a key element he believes will be a difference-maker: character.
“I kept returning to the word `character,'” Kvaratskhelia said. “Did we lack it? No! I know our kids, who they are and what they’re capable of. As a staff, we resolved to do everything we could to enable our kids to show their true character from start to finish — to fight from start to finish and never give up. So we had a rigorous pre-season training program, starting on the first day of the semester, and it hasn’t let up. Everyone has bought in and is giving us their best, from the newcomers to the seniors. We are very happy.”
The reigning two-time men’s and women’s Atlantic Coast Conference Champion Irish return eight NCAA competitors from 2015-16 and will return three-time NCAA women’s foil champion Lee Kiefer, who spent last season training for her second Olympics appearance in Rio this summer. Add to that a bevy of talented newcomers and head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia is eager to see just how far the 2016-17 Irish can go.
“In part, that it means we’ve taken an already good team, and increased the talent level by a big margin, and not just the previous two recruiting classes,” Kvaratskhelia said. “We thought this year, we’d be refining things here and there, but this year we have another big class poised to make significant contributions right away.”
Keep reading for a weapon-by-weapon breakdown of this year’s Irish contingent:
Both men’s and women’s teams boast strong foil lineups, with perhaps the most decorated performers competing in that weapon class. For the women, Kiefer returns after a Round of 16 appearance in Rio and three NCAA titles to her name, while sophomore Sabrina Massialas is the reigning ACC Champion and first team All-American after finishing third at last year’s NCAA Championship. Behind them is talented sophomore Elyssa Kleiner, who took second place at last year’s ACC Championship.
The women’s team will also look for contributions from freshmen Morgan Partridge and Samantha Viqueira. Partridge was a three-time member of the Cadet World Fencing Team and a member of the 2015 Junior World Team. Viqueira helped her team to gold at the 2015 Junior Pan-American games and individually placed seventh at the 2015 Junior Olympics.
For the men, sophomore Axel Kiefer will look to retain his ACC crown and improve upon his own third-place finish at NCAAs, while junior Virgile Collineau returns after garnering third–team All-America honors last season. Also back for the Irish men is senior Kristjan Archer, who qualified for the NCAA competition but did not compete due to the two-per-weapon limit.
Kvaratskhelia anticipates a boost to his already-impressive foil group thanks to the guidance of new assistant coach Buckie Leach. The long-time United State women’s foil coach joined the Irish at the conclusion of the Olympic cycle and has already made a significant impact.
“Buckie has been a fantastic addition to our program,” Kvaratskhelia said. “His qualifications and accomplishments speak for themselves. He’s blended smoothly with our entire staff. The foil squads just soak up his wisdom. It’s kind of inspiring to see them at the end of practice, (the team) sitting on the floor all around him, taking in his every word.”
Junior Francesca Russo, who won the 2015 NCAA women’s sabre title, will lead the Irish women squad after earning her second career All-America scroll last season. She is joined by sophomore Tara Hassett, who took runner-up honors at last year’s ACC Championships and was a third-team All-American. For the men, juniors Jonah Shainberg and Jonathan Fitzgerald return, both with ACC titles to their names (Shainberg, 2015-16; Fitzgerald 2014-15) as well as third-team All-America appearances last year.
Joining the Irish women’s sabre group is freshman Regina O’Brien, a three-time Junior Olympics team gold medalist and Junior Pan-American Games team champion. For the men, Arsenii Panteleev brings a stout international resume, having helped Russia to the men’s sabre titles at the 2015 and 2016 U17 European Championships.
The Irish epee squad will lose a pair of All-Americans to graduation, Catherine Lee from the women’s side and Garrett McGrath on the men’s, but Kvaratskhelia and associate head coach/epee coach Cedric Loiseau have plenty to look forward to with a young but talented squad.
The men return sophomore Dylan French, who claimed last year’s ACC title, as well as Darius Zacharakis, an NCAA competitor last season. The Irish will add top epee prospect Ariel Simmons, who was the 2013 Cadet World Champion and Junior National Champion and has ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation in U.S. Fencing’s senior division. Freshman Zachary Zeller, who helped his team to a gold medal at the Cadet World Cup as a high school sophomore, will also be a welcome addition.
The women will return sophomore NCAA qualifier Madeline Antekeier, who finished third at last year’s ACC Championship. Kvaratskhelia also expects significant contributions from sophomore Amanda Sirico, who redshirted as a freshman for Olympic training purposes. Sirico currently ranks No. 1 in the nation in the junior division and seventh as a senior and most recently won gold at the USA Fencing Junior Olympics in 2015.
The Irish will kick off the collegiate season this weekend, traveling to the Elite Invitational at the University of Pennsylvania. Both men’s and women’s teams will fence in five duals, with the men facing NJIT, Princeton, Yale, North Carolina and Penn and the women taking on Temple, Princeton, Yale, Penn and Cornell.
The Irish women will be without both Lee Kiefer and Sabrina Massialas, who will be competing at the Senior Women’s Foil World Cup in St-Maur, France.
Competition at the Elite Invitational will begin at 8:30 a.m. ET Saturday and last throughout the day.
— ND —
Joanne Norell, athletics communications assistant director 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, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communication, and earned her master’s degree in sports industry management from Georgetown University in 2013.