by Jerry Barca
Building a perennial power in any college sport is difficult. This task becomes more difficult when the sport is filled with international talent as well as pools of talent that are surrounded by East coast powerhouses.
The sport is fencing and Notre Dame head coach Yves Auriol has guided the Irish to national prominence with the use of his coaching ability and a collection of fencers who vary in their experience with the sport.
“We have fencers from all over, some with international experience, some from the physical education classes and some from the local area,” says Auriol.
The local additions to the Notre Dame men’s and women’s fencing teams have had tremendous impact on the program. For many years, talented fencers have come exclusively from the east coast. Things have started to change, and the Notre Dame squads represent this change.
Eight years ago there was only one men’s fencer from the Michiana area. This season, the Irish men will utilize the skills of four Michiana residents in starting positions. In 1991, the Irish women’s teams had no one on the roster from the greater South Bend area. In 1999, the Irish boast the All-American talent of Mishawaka natives Sara Walsh and Myriah Brown, along with St. Joseph High School (South Bend) graduate Christine Efta.
“We are probably the only sport with so many local athletes,” says Auriol. “There are not many schools in the country who can compete for the national championship with so many athletes from their surrounding towns.” The success of the Notre Dame program and the Indiana Fencing Academy, located in Mishawaka, Ind., has enabled Auriol to easily retain the local talent.
Notre Dame offers fencers the opportunity for a renowned education, as well as the chance to compete for the NCAA championship. “For the top fencers in this area coming to Notre Dame is a great choice,” says Stephane Auriol, the coach’s son. “You have great coaching, you get one of the best educations in the country and you are on a fencing team that will compete for the national title year in and year out.”
“Coach (Michael) DeCicco built a great program and Yves has continued this,” says senior foilist Myriah Brown. “Growing up, the fencers in the Notre Dame program were great role models as people and fencers and that is why the sport has grown so much in this area.” Coach Auriol also points to some unsung heroes of the team as the another source for Notre Dame success. Offering fencing in the mandatory physical education classes has given some Notre Dame students the occasion of partaking in and contributing to the Irish fencing program.
“You have to mention the kids that come from the physical education classes, they are not here on scholarship and they do their best to learn the sport. They work hard in practice, their presence only helps to make the whole team better,” says Auriol.
Some of students end up playing major roles for the Irish as they develop as fencers. In 1997, Phil Lee, a former fencing student, was named captain of the men’s epee squad and this season Tim Monahan will repeat Lee’s feat.
“It is an honor to be a part of this team and this program,” says Monahan. “Coming from the PE class to a role as a captain has taken a lot of hard work, but now I feel I can help a lot of the fencers who are on the team now and started in the PE class.”
While Auriol continually credits others for his squads’ successes some senior fencers have a differing opinion. The internationally experienced coach and his assistant Janusz Bednarski have much to do with the achievements of Notre Dame fencing.
“The success of fencing in this area lies on the coaching of Yves and Janusz,” says 1998 NCAA sabre champion and 1999 sabre captain Luke LaValle. “These coaches bring international experience and years of wisdom to the coaching of their sport. Yves has coached numerous United States Olympic teams and Janusz used to be the coach of the Polish national team.” “Back in the East, anywhere you go you are going to have to make a compromise. You can fence for a highly ranked fencing team, but you’ll compromise the quality of education, and if you decide to fence for a top quality academic school chances are you won’t be fencing for a national championship,” says senior sabreman Stephen McQuade. “Notre Dame offers you great coaches and the best of both worlds- you receive a top-notch education and you fence for the national championship every year.” Whatever the ingredients may be, local talent, hard working walk-ons and/or coaching, Auriol has always had the Irish vying for the national title. Auriol has annually had the goal of winning the NCAA championships and in his first three years as head coach of both the men’s and the women’s team, the Irish have finished second. The goal will be the same this year, but there is some added incentive for the coach.
“This season is the end of an era and it has been a real special one. All of these seniors have contributed to this program,” says Auriol. “It has been especially nice for me to watch Myriah and Sara and Stephane start fencing as little kids and see them become Notre Dame fencers. It would be nice to win the national championship with local fencers, winning it with people from around here extends the championship feeling deep into the community.”