Just hours after Notre Dame fencing won their 12th national title at Purcell Pavilion earlier this year, the championship countdown clock on their locker room wall has been updated. The clock read “361 days,” just above the 2023 National Collegiate Fencing Championships logo. That sign — now down to 127 days — is a marker of the unwavering championship aspirations of the most dominant college athletics program from the University of Notre Dame.
Since head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia took over the program in 2014, Notre Dame has won four national titles. They have won five conference championships and crowned 13 individual national champions. This series of phenomenal successes could reach new heights this season. The Irish are looking to complete the first collegiate fencing hat-trick since Penn State won six straight titles from 1994-2000.
Graduate student swordsman Miriam Grady, who returned to the program for a fifth year after a strong season, still wants more. Grady is also one of the few remaining fencers on the team from the 2018-19 season, the last time Notre Dame did not win a national title.
“After two national championship wins we feel good and know we have what it takes to win another one so the expectations are very high,” she said. “But it’s very difficult to win three in a row, even when you have the best squad. I still remember my freshman year, when we had just had two straight wins and we still had one of the strongest rosters and were just short of it. It’s really difficult, so we definitely have our eyes on making the story.
It is natural that the success of the program has raised a lot of expectations. He also put a target on the backs of Notre Dame fencers. For Grady and the team, those expectations are nothing more than just motivation to prove they belong on the top.
“We all have the burden of being number one,” she said. “Every time we walk the Strip, we know the teams are fighting so hard against us just because we are Notre Dame. We know that and we have to be ready to show them who we are and why we are number one.
That mindset is the product of an experienced Notre Dame team that fired 10 of the 12 fencers who competed at nationals last year. Despite this, saber coach Christian Rascioni spoke of an interesting dynamic that has emerged within the squad with the incoming freshman class.
“It’s a special situation this year because we have a lot of seniors and also a lot of freshmen, but not a lot of sophomores and juniors,” he said. “There is a big gap between young and more experienced fencers, so we have to be patient in working with freshmen and teaching them our mentality, our culture and making sure they will be ready soon.”
Rascioni also highlighted the role of more experienced fencers in helping newcomers adapt to the intense environment of college fencing.
“On the Strip, it doesn’t matter how many people are behind you, it’s an individual sport. You are alone. What upperclassmen do is help freshmen understand how to deal with those lonely times on the Strip when it’s just you and your opponent,” he added.
This freshman class added 23 new shooters to the Irish ranks, highlighted by foil Chase Emmer and swordsman Eszter Muhari. Emmer is currently the highest ranked men’s junior foil in the world and 26th overall. He finished 20th overall at the Senior World Championships in July and recently won a Junior World Cup in London. Muhari is currently the 27th female swordswoman in the world. Additionally, she is a former World No. 3 in the junior ranks. She finished last season with a 15th place finish at the World Championships in Cairo and a silver medal at the European Junior Championships.
Grady’s experience has given her insight into where they’ve fallen short in years past, and she credits new talent with a sense of hunger that helped the team overcome complacency.
“Our goal was not where it needed to be [in 2018]. It was as if people were taking victory for granted and not continuing to work. The problem then is that if you don’t have that will to keep improving, other teams will catch up with you. This year we have a huge freshman class and they are all really hungry and bringing a ton of energy,” she said.
Second-year foil fencer Nicole Pustilnik, who finished sixth at the nationals last year, spoke about the level of preparation the team has been through to prepare for the new season.
“We do our lifts twice a week in the morning and have stepped up our conditioning. Then it’s just a lot of training and practice every afternoon for two and a half hours,” she said.
Junior saber Luke Linder, the 2021 individual national champion, echoed Pustilnik’s sentiment.
“Every day we come in and that’s all the intensity we can give. If we take a day off, we don’t want to feel like we’re leaving something on the table and not having good enough practice. That effort builds up throughout the season and that’s our mentality,” he said.
This preparation will be put to the test this Saturday in Philadelphia during the Penn’s Elite Invitational, Notre Dame’s first meeting of the 2022-2023 season. The competition will see the Irish barrier Princeton, Long Island University, Temple (women only), Air Force (men only), North Carolina and Penn.
The game to watch will be their season opener against Princeton. The Tigers finished fourth at last year’s nationals and had an individual women’s foil champion as Maia Weintraub beat Notre Dame’s Amita Berthier in the final. They also handed the Notre Dame women’s team one of three regular season losses in 45 games last year.
Linder was clear on the importance of getting off to a good start this weekend and released a statement of intent for Notre Dame Fencing.
“Last year we won and we don’t want things to be different this year,” he said. “We want to show that we are a dominant program and that we are here to stay. This first meeting aims to show everyone that we have picked up where we left off and that we are serious.
Contact Joche Sanchez Cordoba at [email protected]