WELLESLEY, Mass. -- Columbia Fencing emerged from the endurance test that is the NCAA Northeast Regionals with 10 guaranteed qualifiers for the 2014 NCAA Championships, and the possibility of yet another.
That would bring the Lions' total to 11 qualifiers, matching their 2013 total. Since only 12 fencers can go to the NCAA's from any school, it would put Columbia in a strong position to contend for national honors.
"I'm very proud of our team," head coach Michael Aufrichtig said after leaving the 11-hour competition on the campus of Wellesley College. "In terms of both the long duration of the Regionals, and the quality of the fencers, it is one of the most exacting competitions we participate in.
"But our fencers came through, again and again. They richly deserve the NCAA positions they earned."
Six Columbia men qualified, the maximum two per weapon.
Junior Will Spear and sophomore Geoffrey Loss represent sabre, sophomores Harry Bergman and Adam Mathieu qualify in foil, and sophomores Jake Hoyle and Brian Ro in epee.
The women's qualifiers include sophomore Jackie Dubrovich and first-year Sara Taffel in foil, sophomore Sarah Yee in sabre, and first-year Mason Speta in epee.
Actually, the Lions boasted two other qualifiers, Chris Ahn in men's sabre and Jessie Laffey in women's foil, both first-years, but the limit of two representatives per weapon precluded NCAA slots for them.
Columbia may gain another qualifier in junior women's epeeist Diana Tsinis, a veteran of two NCAA championships. Tsinis was designated an alternate in her weapon; depending on the records compiled by other alternates, she could receive an at-large position.
The Regionals were a true test of skill and stamina. Although higher-seeded competitors were able to avoid the earliest pool (round), they nevertheless found themselves fencing five-touch bouts all day.
Mason Speta, for instance, fenced six bouts in her first round, six more in her second, and 11 bouts, in a rapid-fire format, in the final round.
As a first-year, Speta had never competed in an NCAA regional, but she had heard about them.
"I don't ever go in competitions nervous," she said, "but I was so nervous going into this one. The pool format is so hard, especially the rapid-fire format."
In the final pool, competitors were often called for a bout just 30 seconds after completing another. "I don't think I ever sat down," Speta noted.
Men's epeeist Jake Hoyle agreed. "It was a long day, a lot of fencing," he said, "especially at the end of the last round."
Hoyle had competed in the NCAA Regionals in 2013, his freshman season, but did not fence well enough to make the nationals. This time, he was ready, going in as the top seed in men's epee and finishing third in the weapon.
"I wanted to go to the NCAA so badly," he said. "I felt pretty confident all day." Fencing well from the start, Hoyle went a superb 6-0 in the second pool. That's when he "knew" he was going to make it.
"After the second pool, I wasn't tired. I got momentum going into the next round." Hoyle went into the final rapid-fire round as if he embraced the format; he won eight of the 11 bouts!
"I was really happy I made it," he said. "I knew a lot of good people who never qualified."
Sara Taffel also was elated by her qualifying. The first-year from Manhattan teamed with All-American Jackie Dubrovich to compensate for the absences of two other Columbia women's foil standouts, Nzingha Prescod and Margaret Lu, finishing 10th in the Regional. First team All-Ivy League after compiling a 15-2 record at the Ivies, Taffel was almost as successful in the Regionals.
Fighting off fatigue as the day wore on -- "I just wanted to stay in the zone" -- she earned that trip to the nationals.
"I'm very excited to be going," Sara noted. "I really, really wanted to go."
The long day and arduous competition wears on a fencer's mind, as well as the body. Mason Speta, for instance, began to harbor doubts that she would qualify.
"When I was 3-4," she admitted, "I was a little worried. I noticed my focus dropping. I told myself I needed to refocus, to amp it up. Adrenaline took over."
Even after her success in the rapid-fire final pool, Mason refused to admit to herself that she had qualified.
"Everybody came over and told me I had it. They all wanted to give me high-fives. But I wouldn't take any high-fives until I was sure, until I was one-thousand percent sure I was in!"
The fencers now await the decisions of the NCAA Fencing Committee, which must consider whether to accept both the placing of the normal qualifiers, and rule on which at-large bids, from regionals throughout the nation, it will accept. The Committee rulings are anticipated on Tuesday; NCAA bids hinge on their decisions.
The NCAA Championships extend for four days beginning Thursday, March 20, in French Fieldhouse on the campus of The Ohio State University in Columbus. The first two days will feature the women's competition, followed by two days of men's action.
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