By Pete LaFleur (editor@CollegeFencing360.com)
(mixture of recap and historical perspective included below ... plenty more coverage, video interviews to be posted throughout the week)
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (3/28/10) – Penn State head fencing coach Emmanuil Kaidonov claimed his team was not the favorite heading into the 2010 NCAA Combined Men's and Women's Championship, held March 25-28 at Harvard's Gordon Indoor Track facility. And while the Nittany Lions truly were not ranked #1 in the polls (that distinction belonged to Notre Dame) – nor did they "sleep on the lead" during any of the tournament's first three days (that role was held by St. John's) – at the end of the day (actually day-4), it was Penn State once again occupying the top step of the team medal stand.
Penn State entered Sunday's final day of bouting as the middle entry in a three-team logjam atop the standings. St. John's was clinging to a narrow lead, after totaling 152 wins through the first three days (women on March 25-26, men on the 27th), followed by Penn State (150) and Notre Dame. The narrow four-point difference tied for the closest three-team battle entering the final day, since the six-weapon format began in 2000.
The Nittany Lion men roared out of the gate on Sunday and kept the pedal down, winning 41 of their 54 final-round bouts to finish with a nine-point cushion over runner-up St. John's (191-182). Notre Dame (180) ended up third, followed by Ohio State (180), the host team Harvard (139), Princeton (137), Clumbai (135), Penn (98), Stanford (81) and Duke (70).
It marked the 12th time that the Nittany Lions have claimed the NCAA combined team title, in the 21 years since the current 23-bout, round-robin format made its debut in 1990. Some of Kaidonov's underdog claims (which may have given his squad exact boost) are justified, simply by the fact that the team's 12-fencer configuration this year was significantly different from a year ago (when the Nittany Lions also took home the top trophy).
First-semester women's epeeist Marg Guzzi was Penn State's only individual champion, one year after the Nittany Lions had claimed an unprecedented four weapon crowns in 2009. The first five champions crowned at the 2010 NCAAs – Harvard sophomore women's sabreist Carolina Vloka, Columbia junior women's foilist Nicole Ross, Guzzi, St. John's sophomore men's sabreist Daryl Homer and Notre Dame sophomore men's foilist Gerek Meinhardt – all come from different schools, with that trend finally ending when St. John's newcomer Marat Israelian held off Air Force four-year All-American Peter French, 14-10, in the men's epee final.
Vloka edged defending champion and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Becca Ward (Duke) in a thrilling 15-13 women's sabre final, avenging her loss to Ward in the 2009 NCAA final. Also of note, Wayne State senior men's epeeist Slava Zingerman ended a few spots shy of reaching the medal round (7th place; 14-9) – preventing him the shot of becoming only the second men's fencer ever to win four NCAA titles (also does once by a women's fencer).
The 12 Penn State fencers who comprised the 2009 NCAA title-winning squad included only two – epeeist Jimmy Moody (6th at '09 NCAAs) and fellow All-American, women's foilist Allison Glasser (7th in '09) – who were going to be lost due to graduation. But 12 months later, the Nittany Lions were heading back to the NCAAs with only half of their lineup intact from the previous championship winning squad, due to the following:
• Sophomore sabreist Monica Aksamit (who nearly reached the '09 NCAA four-fencer medal round, finishing 6th) did not fence in any bouts with PSU this spring, but she remains on the roster and conceivably could be back in the mix for 2011.
• Epeeist Nina Westman – a member of the Swedish junior national team and a near-All-American at the '09 NCAAs (13th) – opted to return to her home country, despite turning in a solid debut season in college fencing.
• Senior Nick Chinman won the 2009 NCAA men's foil title and then months later was shifted to epee. The Colorado native had plenty of past experience fencing both foil and epee, in addition to possessing the mental focus needed to excel in epee (see below to see how the weapon shift worked out for all concerned).
• The Penn State coaches opted to bring epeeist Brian Heflich to the NCAAs, rather than fellow senior Max Dettlinger (both PSU fencers fell within the regional qualifying standard). Dettlinger had fenced in the 2009 NCAAs and placed 15th, contributing 11 wins to the team's total a year ago.
With Westman, Aksamit and Dettlinger not part of the 12-fencer contingent, along with Chinman's weapon shift (plus the two key graduation losses), it became evident that some "NCAA newcomers" would be on the spot to perform – while the team's veterans would need to put up high win totals.
Mission accomplished in terms of both goals spelled out above. Freshman David Willette slid into Chinman's vacated foil spot and responded by posting the most wins (20) in the NCAA men's foil round-robin ... Italian newcomer Guzzi (who joined the program between semesters) did Willette one better, winning the women's epee crown in a 15-10 bout vs. Harvard sophomore Noam Mills (NCAA runner-up each of the past two years). ... Women's foilist Olga Ostatnigrosh, who also joined the PSU program over the semester break, chipped in with eight wins, while sophomore women's sabreist Olivia Benedek's 12 wins left her one victory shy of All-America status.
On the veteran front, three battle-tested PSU women were among the leaders in their respective weapons. Senior Doris Willette (who has an extra year of eligibility remaining) preceded her brother in reaching a foil title bout, but she ended up a few points shy of claiming a rare third individual NCAA title (9-15 vs. Columbia's Ross). Willette's 19 round-robin wins were third-most in the field, while Guzzi (15) and senior teammate Nastia Ferdman (18) both reached the semifinal/medal round in women's epee. Ferdman was the defending NCAA champion and capped her career by finishing in the top-6 all four years (also 4th in '07, 6th in '08), with her final bout being a 7-8 standoff vs.fellow Israeli Mills of Harvard during Friday semifinals (one of several 2010 rematches of 2009 title-bout matchups).
The Penn State women's sabre duo also featured a veteran fencer leading the way, as 5th-year senior Caity Thompson likewise became a four-time All-American with her 6th-place finish (16 wins; also was 4th in '06, runner-up in '07 and 11th in '09).
On the men's side, Chinman made a run at winning back-to-back NCAA titles in different weapons. The Colorado native impressively finished with the second-best record in the epee round-round phase (16-7/+23 indicators), but he fell in a 15-4 semifinal vs. the veteran French. Chinman was bidding to become the first men's fencer since Columbia's Ben Atkins (foil '91; epee '93) to win NCAA titles in different weapons. Stanford's Felicia Zimmerman also completed that rare feat by winning the 1998 women's foil title and then claiming the top epee spot in '93.
Penn State's spirited and ultra-competitive men's sabre duo – senior Daniel Bak and sophomore Aleksander Ochocki – matched the PSU women's epeeists by each reaching the medal round. Bak's 22 round-robin wins were the most in the field, but he lost to Homer in the 15-10 title bout (Homer also handed Bak his only round-robin defeat). Bak defeated Ochocki in a 15-12 semifinal, reversing the result from their 2009 semifinal matchup (when Ochocki went on to beat Homer for the title). Bak reached the medal round three times in his career, also placing third in 2008.
Willette's freshman season included winning the Mid-Atlantic/South Regional men's foil title a couple weeks earlier and he nearly matched his sister by winning the NCAA championship as a freshman, but the 2008 U.S. Olympian Meinhardt posting a 15-9 win in the final (Chinman beat Meinhardt in the '09 NCAA title bout). PSU sophomore Miles Chamley-Watson made a return to the medal round, as did ND sophomore Enzo Castellani (who lost to Willette while Meinhardt beat Chamley-Waton, with both semifinals decided by 15-11 scores).
Penn State also has claimed NCAA combined team titles in 1990, '91, six straight from 1995-2000, '02, '07 and '09. The Nittany Lions now have been the champions three of the past four years, after a four-year "drought" of not winning the title from 2003-06. During the past 21 years, only five other teams have won the NCAA team title: three by Notre Dame ('94, '03, '05), two each for Columbia ('92, '93) and Ohio State ('04, '08), and one each for St. John's ('01) and Harvard ('06).