March 16, 2005
Note: The Notre Dame men’s and women’s fencers begin their four-day quest for the program’s seventh NCAA title on Thursday at Houston’s George Brown Convention Center. Fans of the Irish can follow the action at und.com, with daily preview stories and recaps (with photos from the NCAA bouts) and a series of feature stories starting with this look at the team’s sophomore men’s sabre duo.
By Greg Touney
HOUSTON, Texas – Oftentimes in collegiate athletics, freshmen are expected to come in and gradually assist their respective sides.
Rarely, however, are two freshmen expected to be the top two on their squad.
For Notre Dame sophomore sabres Patrick Ghattas and Matt Stearns, this was the case for the 2003-04 season. Following the departure of graduated All-Americans Matt Fabricant and Gabor Szelle, Ghattas and Stearns were brought in to head the ’03-’04 men’s sabre squad.
Head coach Janusz Bednarski, who recruited the pair, remembers the adjustments the two were forced to make when entering the college ranks.
Head coach Janusz Bednarski (right) has played a key role in the progress of the Irish sabre fencers (photo by Matt Cahsore).
“Patrick and Matt knew they had pressure as freshmen,” Bednarski recalls. “They had a feeling that college fencing was something different because now they were fencing for a team and were observed by teammates who hoped that they would help the team in the final results.”
Ghattas agrees with Bednarski’s observations.
“It’s always weird coming from my background because fencing typically is an individual sport and then when you come to the NCAAs, it’s a team sport,” says the native of the Beaverton, Ore. “You’re not only looking out for yourself but for your teammates also. In that respect, it was pretty difficult to come in as a freshman and adjust to that.”
With more than a full year of experience under their belts, Ghattas and Stearns return to the NCAA championships with a renewed sense of focus. Both are looking to improve on their 2004 results where Ghattas placed 10th and earned third team All-American status while Stearns finished 14th to narrowly miss All-American honors.
“I definitely want to improve on last year,” Stearns says. “Being named an All-American is nice, but it just comes down to winning more bouts.”
“Those awards are good to have, but I want the team to win so badly.”
Matt Stearns narrowly missed All-America honors after finishing 14th at the NCAAs (photo by Pete LaFleur).
For what he might lack in experience, Stearns makes up for in physical size. His 6-foot-4 frame proves a tremendous wingspan and reach advantage that few sabre fencers can match.
Stearns has made great strides at Notre Dame to help overcome a lack of experience when he first headed south from his hometown of Minnetrista, Minn., and began his college career. A lot of the credit for that improvement goes to Bednarski, a lifelong specialist in sabre.
“Janusz has been a huge part of my development. My club in Minnesota would practice two or three times a week for maybe a couple of hours,” says Stearns. “I didn’t have a whole lot of lessons or anything like that, so I was figuring stuff out own my own.
“But coming here and having practice everyday – I noticed that I was able to improve quickly and correct a lot of bad habits I had developed.”
“You don’t see many tall sabre fencers because the weapon requires agility and a quick change of direction,” Bednarski says. “But Matt is very quick for his size and makes great use of his big reach.”
Stearns – who currently checks in at 16th in the USFA under-20 men’s sabre rankings – finished the season with a 41-9 record, six wins better than his freshman campaign. Perhaps his strongest showing of 2005 was during the first day of the ND Duals, when his 12-0 mark made him one of four Irish fencers to finish the day with double-digit wins and no losses. Included in those 12 wins was a three-bout sweep of the talented Penn State men’s sabre squad that boasted two All-Americans in Marten Zagunis and Ian Farr.
Patrick Ghattas has surged to the top of the USFA Under-20 men’s sabre rankings and will compete with the U.S. in the World Junior Championship (photo by Heather Gollatz).
Ghattas – with a compact, 5-foot-9 frame – typically relies on agility and quickness as two qualities that he believes come in handy while on the strip. And he has used that ability to earn a spot with the three-man U.S. sabre team in the World Junior Championships, to be held in Austria shortly after the NCAAs.
“Sabre requires a lot more agility than the other weapons,” Ghattas explains. “You need to move as fast as you can forward and then switch into moving as fast as you can backwards.
“The way I’m built makes me better at sabre.”
Along with testing a fencer’s physical qualities, sabre also can test a fencer’s pre-bout concentration – a task easier said than done.
“Before the referee says `Fence’, you’ve got to have a plan. And if that plan doesn’t work, you’ve got to have a backup plan. And if the backup plan doesn’t work…” Ghattas trails off, emphasizing the keen decision-making that sabre fencers go through.
“The top-level fencers have at least three options before the referee tells them to fence,” he says.
Patrick Ghattas hopes to celebrate a high individual finish at the NCAAs that will help the Irish in their compile previous points in their quest for the team title (photo by Pete LaFleur).
Part of the Oregon fencing pipeline that includes five other Irish fencers, Ghattas has turned into a top-level fencer through a combination of talent and hard work. The most recent USFA under-20 men’s sabre rankings list Ghattas at the top, a testament to his tremendous upside among the nation’s young sabre fencers.
The sophomore sensation hopes to translate that success into a top-four finish at this year’s NCAA championships, a goal which may prove difficult – thanks in part to a deep sabre field – but one that is definitely attainable.
Ghattas enters the 2005 championships with a career NCAA record of 25-16 versus other sabres who will be participating in Houston. Not included in that record are wins over Zagunis (15-10) and St. John’s senior Sergey Isayenko (15-14) at the 2004 North American Cup (Zagunis was in line to qualify for the ’05 NCAAs but narrowly missed making the field).
The 2004 All-American should be riding a wave of momentum in the final college event of the season, following his first-place showing at the 2005 Midwest Regional that included a sweep of the three potent Ohio State sabres.
Matt Stearns (pictured) and Patrick Ghattas have been a valuable support system for each other during their Irish careers (photo by Matt Cashore).
Ghattas and Stearns have parlayed their friendship into success on the strips. Both came to Notre Dame in as freshmen who were not used to the nuances of collegiate fencing and a bond was formed that has aided each of the sabre standouts in their growth during the past two years.
“When you fence with someone for a year and have been to the NCAAs with them, you figure out what each person needs in terms of being a teammate,” Stearns says. “You learn the idiosyncrasies of each other and what each of us needs from each other.
“It’s been nice having Patrick there because he’s experienced and a pretty phenomenal fencer, so everything he says, I take into account.”
His fellow sabre agrees.
“Having Matt there definitely helps,” Ghattas says. “We both came in as freshmen and there was a lot of pressure, so it was nice to kind of split the pressure up between the two of us.”
Bednarski has overseen their progress during the past two seasons and observes the same relationship.
“Patrick and Matt get together through the stress and the hardship of such a large-scale competition,” says the Irish coach. “I believe this year they’re more experienced.”
If the sabre duo ends up bettering their 2004 NCAA showings – a very likely event – it will be the continuation of a trend of improvement that has been seen by Bednarski and others over the past two seasons.
In 2003, Ghattas and Stearns both might have seemed rather green when they entered college fencing, but they have made a quick transition to the sport. Their success as a pair gives the Irish good reason to believe that they can lead not only the men’s sabre squad – but Notre Dame as a whole – to a national championship.