STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The last time Columbia Fencing came to Happy Valley, home of Penn State University, it excelled in the 2009 NCAA Championships. The Lions came to Happy Valley again Saturday, and went away almost as pleased.
Competing in their first major collegiate meet of the season, the Penn State Invitational, the Lions won nine of a possible 10 dual matches, as the women's team won all five contests, and the men won four of five.
In posting its spotless 5-0 record, the women's team surprised the host Nittany Lions, 15-12, edged Duke and North Carolina by 14-13 scores, and trounced Temple and Drew. The men also defeated Duke in a tight 17-10 match, while topping Drew, North Carolina and Haverford more easily. The men's sole loss was to Penn State, 22-5.
Coach Michael Aufrichtig substituted freely, resting his regulars while giving fencing time to several inexperienced competitors.
"This was a big learning competition," the coach said. "We wanted to try and see what people can do. [In that light], I'm happy to come out with a winning record. Last season, we were 2-3 after our opening meet."
The coach held off substituting in the first two competitions of the day, the women against Temple and Penn State, the men against the Nittany Lions and Haverford.
Going head-to-head against a strong Temple squad to begin the day's competition, Columbia stunned the Owls, 23-4. Six Lions posted perfect 3-0 records: Lydia Kopecky and Emma Peterson in epee, Jackie Dubrovich and Margaret Lu in foil, and sisters Loweye and Essane Diedro in sabre.
That gave them momentum into the next match, against a formidable Penn State team.
Columbia had surprised the Nittany Lions in 2012, winning 14-13, and the hosts were ready. But so were New York's Lions. Each of the three weapon squads won two out of three bouts in the opening round, giving their team a 6-3 lead, one which they never relinquished.
After two rounds, Columbia still led, 10-8, and while sabre dropped two of three in the final round, both foil and epee came through with 2-1 marks to give the Lions the victory.
The epee squad put it away with the final two victories. First Emma Peterson defeated Anne Stephenson, 5-3, and then Lydia Kopecky topped Rebecca Stanley, 5-2.
Penn State epee featured 2012 NCAA silver medalist, Margherita Guzzi Vincenti, but Columbia had a strategy for the All-American.
"She's very strong," Kopecky noted. "She's hard to figure out at first, what she's going to do next. So we focused on taking all the other bouts." While Guzzi Vincenti went 3-0, the Lions took five of six from Penn State's other epeeists.
Margaret Lu went 3-0 and Jackie Dubrovich was 2-1 to lead the 6-3 foil effort, while the Diedro sisters contributed twin 2-1 records in sabre. The result was yet another Columbia victory over Penn State, this time by 15-12.
"Beating Penn State was awesome," Kopecky said. "It felt really good to beat a school that is always a contender. It made us feel that we, too, can be a contender for the national championship."
With Aufrichtig substituting freely in the afternoon matches, the women struggled against Duke and North Carolina, beating both by 14-13 scores.
Foil and sabre led the way against a solid Blue Devil unit, as Dubrovich went 3-0, while Prescod and D'Meca Homer were each 2-1 in a 7-2 foil effort. First-years Sarah Gruman and Laura Hunter-Thomas were both 2-1 to pace sabre.
The foilists also were 7-2 against North Carolina -- Lu and Homer going 3-0 each -- and both Peterson and Hunter-Thomas were 2-1.
Lu, a heralded first-year student from Greenwich, Conn., was a perfect 12-0 on the day, while Kopecky (11-4) and Peterson (10-5) both hit double figures.
Kopecky, a veteran All-American who finished eighth in the NCAA last year, couldn't get over how different this year's Columbia team is from previous years.
"The energy on this team is amazing," she said. "We're much more cohesive."
Junior Mel Rodriguez, a three-year member of the men's team, sensed similar vibes, thanks in large part to the Lions' 15 first-year students.
"This group of freshmen has revitalized us," he observed. "It's not just their talent on the fencing strip. Their attitude is infectious and helps all of us."
Rodriguez looked over at the far strip, where the Columbia women had just edged North Carolina by a single bout.
"Look at Sarah Yee," he said, referring to a freshman women's sabre fencer. "She was just down 4-0, and came back to win, 5-4. It's that kind of perseverance that helps all of us."
The men's team excelled against two strong squads, beating Duke, 17-10, and North Carolina, 20-7. The Lions also posted easy wins over Haverford, 25-2, and Drew, 21-6. Only epee came through against a powerful Penn State team, going 4-5 behind 2-1 records from senior All-American Alen Hadzic and first-year Brian Ro.
Ro, who hails from Scarsdale, N.Y., led the men's squads with a 9-1 record in epee. First-years Jake Hoyle (8-2) and Justin Wan (7-3) also excelled in epee, which won 34 of 45 bouts for the tournament.
Two other first-years, Harry Bergman (7-3) and Adam Mathieu (7-4), paced foil, while a 29-16 sabre squad benefited from Rodriguez (7-2); sophomores Michael Josephs and Will Spear, both 6-3; and yet another first-year, Geoffrey Loss (6-4).
After competition in a USFA North American Cup next week, Columbia will return to the collegiate strips Saturday and Sunday, January 26 and 27, in some of the Lions' toughest competition until the NCAA's. In Saturday's St. John's Super Cup, they'll meet the host Red Storm, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Harvard, and Penn State; Sunday, in the NYU Invitational at the Violets' Coles Gymnasium, Columbia will see St. John's, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and North Carolina once again, while taking on newcomers Wayne State and Northwestern.
Columbia, you can be sure, will be ready.
"We know what it takes to beat the hard teams," Lydia Kopecky says. After the Penn State Invitational, she adds, "We know we ARE one of the hard teams."
The results:

Penn State Invitational
(Columbia, Penn State, Duke, North Carolina, Drew, Temple, Haverford)
Saturday, January 12, 2013
State College, Pa. (White Building)

Columbia Men's Fencing (4-1
25-2 Haverford, 5-22 Penn State, 21-6 Drew, 17-10 Duke, 20-7 North Carolina
Individual Records:
MS - Mel Rodriguez 7-2, Michael Josephs 6-3, Will Spear 6-3, Geoffrey Loss 6-4, Rienzi Gokea 4-4
MF - Harry Bergman 7-3, Adam Mathieu 7-4, Bo Charles 5-4, John Tuddenham 3-3, Alex Pensler 3-6
ME - Brian Ro 9-1, Jake Hoyle 8-2, Justin Wan 7-3, Alen Hadzic 6-3, Andrei Tapai 4-2
WEAPON SQUADS - M Epee 34-11, M Sabre 29-16, M Foil 25-20

Women's Fencing (5-0)
23-4 Temple, 15-12 Penn State, 25-2 Drew, 14-13 Duke, 14-13 North Carolina
Individual Records:
WS - Laura Hunter-Thomas 7-2, Loweye Diedro 5-1, Essane Diedro 5-1, Sarah Gruman 5-4, Sarah Yee 6-9
WF - Margaret Lu 12-0, D'Meca Homer 8-1, Jackie Dubrovich 7-2, Nzingha Prescod 6-3, Huda Muhammad 2-4
WE - Lydia Kopecky 11-4, Emma Peterson 10-5, Camille Gallardo 6-7, Nzingha Prescod 1-1
WEAPON SQUADS - W Foil 35-10, W Sabre 28-17, W Epee 28-17