November 20, 2009

Revamped Fencing Team Gears Up for 09-10 Season

NEW HAVEN – The Yale men’s fencing team will begin its 2009-2010 season this weekend with the Penn State Open, in State College, Pa. The tournament will be the team’s first competitive meet of the season, and will serve as a tune-up for what the Bulldogs hope will be an exciting and successful season. The Elis have four returning seniors, including captain Andrew Holbrook and team manager Thomas Bell. Joining them will be a talented class of freshmen fencers who will fill necessary holes, making the Bulldogs a more complete and well-rounded team—one that has legitimate aspirations for the Ivy League title this season.

Last season, the Bulldogs ended their dual-meet season with an overall record of 11-7 and a fourth-place finish in the Ivy League. They finished with a 1-4 Ivy record, behind Penn, Columbia and Princeton, but tied with Harvard and Brown for fourth place. However, within that rather disappointing 1-4 record, were two frustratingly close losses to Princeton (12-15) and Brown (13-14), as well as a spectacular 15-12 win against Harvard that broke a seven-year drought against the Crimson. These results were indicative of a larger trend of progress and improvement that defined the Elis’ 2008-2009 fencing season. Further evidence of the Bulldogs’ steps forward was their 11-7 dual-meet record, which was an improvement over the previous season’s 7-9 finish.

To add to their team achievements, after Ivy League play was over, the Bulldogs took fifth place overall (Men’s Three-Weapon) at the Intercollegiate Fencing Association Championship. Most impressively, the foil squad won the Little Iron Man trophy, awarded to the top men's foil team at the IFA Championship. This marked the second year in a row that the Bulldogs took home the Little Iron Man, which is the most prestigious award of the competition, as well as the oldest trophy in collegiate sports. The IFA Championship format requires that for each weapon, fencers are divided into classes A, B and C, usually corresponding to skill level. Thus, each fencer only competes once against each particular university in the tournament, meaning that the competition favors well-rounded teams that can put strong fencers in all nine spots. The Bulldogs’ success at the IFA Championship is a testament to their balance as a team.

Aside from their achievements as a team, the Elis also had a number of noteworthy individual accomplishments last season. Most significantly, outgoing captain Michael Pearce ’09 was named an All-American after finishing 8th among all epeeists in the country at the NCAA Championships. Pearce was also named to the first team All-Ivy epee squad and he finished third at the IFA epee individual competition. Sophomore foilist Shiv Kachru also distinguished himself at the NCAA Championships, finishing 10th among all foilists and earning an Honorable Mention for the All-America foil team. Also qualifying for the NCAA Championship were senior foilist John Gurrieri and sophomore epeeist Alexander Cohen, who finished 19th and 24th respectively. The team qualified nine fencers to the NCAA Regional Championships—the highest number allowable. Finally, outgoing senior Sebastian Cano-Besquet was named to the All-Ivy saber squad.

Looking ahead to this season, the Bulldogs are optimistic to continue and expand upon the improvements that they made last season. Though they will miss the leadership and fencing ability of Pearce, the Elis believe that they have more than made up for the loss by bolstering other areas of the team.

“The new freshmen are great additions to the team and will make a big difference,” said Holbrook. “The team will be looking to Nate [Benzimra], Colin [Mills] and Will [Zhao] to really help lift the level of the saber squad. Nick [Wan] is a great addition to the epee team. We will of course miss Mike, but we are working hard to build from the base we have to create a solid foundation for the upcoming season. These freshmen are key to that goal.”

In particular, the Bulldogs will have a much-improved saber squad this season, patching up one area of the team that had the biggest troubles last season. To add to returning sophomore Adam Fields and senior Ola Malm, the saber squad will consist of recruits Benzimra and Mills, as well as freshman walk-on Zhao. With seven returning fencers, the reigning IFA Champion foil squad will have to deal with an embarrassment of riches. The Bulldogs will have senior captain Andrew Holbrook, senior John Gurrieri, junior Nathaniel Botwinick, sophomore Shiv Kachru, sophomore Jonathan Holbrook, sophomore Taylor Gregoire-Wright and sophomore Jose Dario Martinez. Gurrieri and Kachru both qualified for the NCAA Championship last season and Botwinick won his pool at the IFA Championship. Jonathan Holbrook, who is a nationally ranked foilist, switched over to saber last season out of necessity to fill a gap, but will be returning to his bread and butter in foil this year. Finally, the epee squad will have big shoes to fill in Pearce’s absence, but should manage to do alright with Bell, NCAA Championship qualifier Cohen, sophomore Bo Qu, sophomore Adrian Godoy and freshman recruit Nicholas Wan.

“Our foil squad is one of the strongest in the country,” noted Holbrook. “Jonathan Holbrook is returning to foil after volunteering to switch to saber last season. With numerous top eight national finishes and formerly ranked in the top five in the country before coming to Yale, it’s great to have him back on foil, where he belongs. The team is excited to see Jose Dario Martinez returning to action after tearing his ACL last season when he switched weapons to fence saber at IFAs. His recovery is nearly complete and he’s coming back stronger than ever. With Nat, Shiv, John--last year’s Ironman winners--and myself, as well as sophomore Taylor all returning, we have a seven-deep foil team that is poised again to be central to the team’s success no matter who starts.”

The Penn State Open will be a two-day event—lasting through both Saturday Nov. 21 and Sunday Nov. 22. Yale will look to improve on last year’s performance, where an injury-plagued Bulldogs team had only two top-10 finishers—foilists Kachru (4th) and Botwinick (8th).

After the Penn State Open this weekend, the Bulldogs will have their final meet of the semester on Dec. 5 in the Brandeis Invitational, in Waltham, Mass. This will mark the beginning of the Elis’ official dual-meet season. At last year’s event, the Bulldogs won all four meets, defeating Boston College (16-11), St. John’s (15-12), Brandeis (17-10) and MIT (15-12). The team will look to similarly start the season with a 4-0 record this year.

The Elis will then return from winter break to host Vassar on Jan. 18, in their seventh-floor fencing facilities in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium. Last season Yale soundly defeated Vassar by a score of 21-6. The team is excited to be hosting this first of two meets on its home turf.

The Bulldogs will then head to the NYU Invitational tournament on Jan. 23 before returning home to host Sacred Heard and Drew on Jan. 30. Last year, the Bulldogs had mixed results against some of the best teams in the country (including Ohio State and Notre Dame) at the NYU Invitational. However, they did defeat both Sacred Heart and Drew, each by a final score of 15-12.

The home meet will close out the Elis’ dual-meet season before the Junior Olympics in the middle of February. Ivy League competition will commence with the Ivy North competition on Feb. 21, hosted by Cornell. The following weekend, the Bulldogs will finish up Ivy play with the Ivy South competition, hosted by Penn. The team is excited to improve on last season’s 1-4 Ivy record, and compete for the Ivy League Championship.

After the Ivy League champion is determined, Yale would normally participate in the IFA Championship. In fact, the Bulldogs were supposed to host the competition this year. The team was excited at the prospect of defending its Little Iron Man trophy before a home crowd. However, the IFA Competition has been cancelled this year because many schools dropped out due to budget constraints.

Should any fencers qualify, the Bulldogs will continue their season individually with the NCAA Regional Championship and the NCAA Championship, both held in March. Last season, the Yale men’s fencing team finished in 11th place nationally, based on the sum total of points earned individually by its four qualifying fencers at the NCAA Championship. When these points were added to those earned by the Yale women at the NCAA Championship, the result was good enough to make Yale 10th in the nation overall.

Looking forward to the entire season, captain Andrew Holbrook is optimistic and determined.

“The team has been working the hardest I have seen in my four years here to prepare for the upcoming season,” he noted. “I am looking forward to continuing working with manager Tom Bell to help make sure we are in the best fencing, mental and physical shape possible. The depth of experience and knowledge on this team is phenomenal and everyone has been and will be making critical contributions towards ensuring this is the best season it can be. Although we feel it is a significant challenge, this team has one goal: winning the Ivy League.”

Head Coach Henry Harutunian echoes Holbrook’s sentiments.

“We have some great kids, with a beautiful leader in Andrew [Holbrook],” he said. “The foil squad is very strong and they have been pushing themselves very hard, and the epee and saber squads are taking their example. We will compete at Penn State this weekend, and whether we win or lose, I know they won’t give anything away easy to the other teams, and that’s what is most important.”


Report by Arsi Sefaj ’11, Yale Sports Publicity

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