PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The Columbia men and women's fencing teams, looking for their first Ivy League titles since 2008, set the stage Saturday, the first day of the Ivy League Round Robin Championships, by winning all five of their matches, some in heroic fashion.
Enthralling and delighting the large crowd of Lion parents and fans, the Columbia women's team topped Penn, 14-13, Brown, 18-9, and Cornell in a 17-10 decision that was much closer than the score indicated.
The men's team beat Penn, 17-10, and posted another 18-9 score in defeating Brown, which is hosting the championships at the Bears' Olney-Margolies Athletic Center.
Penn was Columbia's first opponent of the tournament, and although the Quakers had suffered recent personnel losses, Columbia coach Michael Aufrichtig was worried.
"I had concerns about UPenn, on both the men's and women's sides," the coach admitted. Anything could happen, he noted, in five-touch bouts.
On the men's side, Penn wasted little time in justifying Aufrichtig's concerns, as the Quakers won two of three in sabre. The Lions utilize sabre to get them off to a flying start, but that would not be the case today.
So foil and epee bore the load, each going a perfect 3-0 against Penn. Sabre rebounded at the beginning of round two, as Geoffrey Loss shocked defending NCAA champion Michael Mills, 5-0, and one bout later, Will Spear blanked Sean Turner, 5-0. Adam Mathieu and Harry Bergman stretched foil's lead to 5-1 with victories, while Jake Hoyle and Brian Ro each won their second bout to put epee up 5-1 as well.
Columbia had started slowly, but was now poised on the threshold of victory with a 13-5 record, just one bout away.
Penn still had hope, closing to 13-6 with a sabre win. So Loss came through with the decisive touch. It was not an unfamiliar role for the tall Californian.
"I've won the fourteenth bout more than a few times," Loss said. "I didn't know my bout could be the 14th until I heard Conor Beckerman say that to [assistant coach] Seoung-Woo Lee. When I heard that, I said I'm going to go out and get that 14th bout."
Loss snared the first touch against Penn veteran Sean Turner, and the second. Two more quickly followed, and then Loss came through with the decisive fifth touch. Overcome with emotion, he let out with what can best be described as a growl, turning his body 180 degrees. Epee added two more wins, as Hoyle and Ro finished 3-0 each, with foil registering one more, Mathieu going 3-0, for a final 17-10 result.
On adjacent strips, the Lion women were locked in a battle of their own.
Women's sabre gave Columbia a 2-1 start, with Jessie Laffey and Sarah Yee winning. The Lions' vaunted foil squad turned in three wins, offset by epee's 0-3 beginning.
Columbia led, 5-4, but was dealt a shock of its own when international standout Nzingha Prescod aggravated an injury she had suffered in a Foil World Cup in Poland, and had to drop out of the day's competition. She would be replaced by a first-year, Sara Taffel.
Yee and Laffey, a foil fencer who had volunteered to help out in sabre, each posted two more wins for a 7-4 Lion lead. But epee was having problems, so foil, minus Prescod, would have to step up.
Margaret Lu beat Sarah Parmacek, 5-3, but Jackie Dubrovich, NCAA silver medalist last season, lost to Cassidy Seidl, 5-4, evening the foil round at 1-1. Then Taffel took the strip.
At first, she admitted, "I didn't even know I would fence. I was very nervous in my first bout; it was against Luona Wang. I hadn't fenced her in a year."
Taffel beat Wang, 4-3, only to see Penn make gains in epee. The Quakers drew within 11-10, but were stopped short by Dubrovich, 5-3 over Parmacek, and Lu, 4-2 over Wendy Zhao. Penn came back again on in epee, back to within 13-12. If Columbia was to hold on and win, the onus would fall on the shoulders of two freshmen, Taffel in foil and Mason Speta in epee.
Make that four freshmen; Penn foilist Cassidy Seidl and epeeist Alejandra Trumble were first-year students, too.
"Against Seidl," Taffel said, "I tried to focus real hard. This was for the winning bout; I had lost a 13-13 bout to Princeton earlier this year. I wanted to make up for that."
Sara won her first touch to go up 1-0. Then she notched a second touch, a third, and a fourth! Seidl rebounded with her first touch, to trail 4-1. In a five-touch bout, 4-1 is hardly insurmountable.
But Taffel would have none of that. She registered touch number five, giving herself her second victory and Columbia a coveted victory over Penn, eventually by a 14-13 score.
Both Columbia squads then defeated the host Bears, each by an 18-9 score. Seven Lions posted spotless 3-0 records: Sara Taffel, Jackie Dubrovich, and Mason Speta among the women; Will Spear, Brian Ro, Adam Mathieu, and Drew Johnston among the men.
That ended the men's day, but the women still faced a stiff test in the Cornell Big Red, which doesn't have a men's team.
Aufrichtig had warned his team against complacency vs. the Big Red, an apt caution.
Yee, Laffey and Brittin Boenning got sabre off to a good start, with a 2-1 record. The torrid foil trio of Lu, Dubrovich and Taffel went 3-0, and Speta posted an epee victory. After the first round, Columbia led, 6-3.
Cornell had a good second round, however, pulling within 11-7. It was then as if a rocket ship had attached itself to the Lions. Taffel won, Lu, and Dubrovich, and a brilliant come-from-behind overtime victory from freshman epeeist Vivian Rand.
Speta posted a big 5-3 win in epee for an 11-6 lead, only to see three straight Cornell victories bring the Red to an 11-9 deficit.
The resilient Columbia women stepped up the pace, though. Sarah Yee's 5-3 win over Anastasia Turin gave Columbia a 12-9 lead, and Sara Taffel's 5-3 decision over Angelica Gangemi made it 13-9. That old 14th-touch clincher again, with Vivian Rand on the strip against Yolanda Li.
Except Rand had no idea how important her bout was.
"I had no idea what the score was," she admitted. "But I felt it would be my bout to win."
Rand, however, fell behind quickly at 1-0 and 2-1. When she tied it at 2-2, her emotions let go and she let out a big yell. The bout continued, her teammates cheetring her on. But epee touches can be few and far between.
Suddenly there was a double touch with 32 seconds to go in regulation time, making the score 3-3. If it remained that way, it would force a sudden-death overtime.
But with just 12 seconds to go, the scoreboard bell rang, and Vivian Rand let loose with another yell. But it was one of surprise, as well as victory. "I didn't think I hit her hard enough [for the touch to register]," Rand said. Just three seconds later, she did hit Li hard enough, to close with a 5-3 match-clinching victory. "It was a great feeling," she said. Her teammates put up three more wins for a final 17-10 score."
Columbia's chances for its first Ivy League titles since 2008 hinge on its Sunday matches -- vs. Harvard at 10 a.m., Yale at 11:30, and Princeton at 1:45.
"We feel we have a shot at defeating Harvard and Princeton in both men's and women's matches," Michael Aufrichtig said. "I told our men tonight that we shouldn't forget how well prepared we are for these teams. We talked about it. Our chances are good."
Vivian Rand agreed with her coach. "I have confidence,:" she said, "we can do it."
THE 2014 IVY LEAGUE ROUND-ROBIN FENCING CHAMPIONSHIPS
Day One; February 8, 2014
Olney-Margolies Athletic Center, Brown University
Day One Standings
Men's: Harvard 3-0, COLUMBIA 2-0, Princeton 2-1; Brown 1-2, Penn 1-2, Yale 0-4
Women's: Princeton 4-0, COLUMBIA 3-0, Harvard 2-1, Penn 2-2, Brown 1-2, Cornell 0-3, Yale 0-4