NEW HAVEN, CONN. -- The Columbia women's fencing team posted strong victories over Harvard and Yale on the final day of the 2012 Ivy League Round-Robin Championships, only to be thwarted in its bid for the top spot by Princeton. The Lions finished 5-1 to gain their fourth straight runner-up spot in the Ivy League.
They were joined by a resurgent Lion men's team, which won two of five matches, after going winless the past two years, and finished in a tie for third, its best since 2009.
The women had been thinking about the Harvard match well before the match began 10 a.m. Sunday, even before head coach Michael Aufrichtig exhorted his team to "think about beating Harvard as you get off the bus" at the tournament venue, Yale's Coxe Cage. In fact, they realistically thought about defeating the Crimson back in January, when the Lions began their collegiate season with a 15-12 win over the visitors from Cambridge at the St. John's Super Cup in Queens.
In order to reach their goal of an Ivy League title, the Lions would have to go through Harvard.
But that wasn't going to be easy. Seventh-ranked nationally, Harvard boasted two NCAA champions in its lineup, Caroline Vloka (sabre) and Alexandra Kiefer (foil).
Senior co-captain Sammy Roberts, in the final Ivy Championships of her illustrious career, got Columbia off to a good start with a 5-2 win over Kara Lee, and Essane Diedro defeated Hayley Levitt, 5-4. After the first sabre round, Columbia led, 2-1.
But Harvard took two of three in both foil and epee for a 5-4 lead after one round. Round two saw sabre again going 2-1 and foil at 1-2 -- first-year Dianna Hohensee narrowly missing an upset win over Kiefer -- before epee stepped up as Lydia Kopecky had predicted they would the day before.
Diana Tsinis and Katya English both won for the Lions in the weapon, English coming through with a 5-4 decision over Nadia Eldeib, to bring Columbia into a 9-9 tie with Harvard after two rounds.
When the third round began, Columbia's sabre team made a move. Loweye Diedro edged Hayley Levitt, 5-4, and her sister Essane topped Kara Lee, 5-3. Now all eyes turned to the sabre strip, where Sammy Roberts would meet Caroline Vloka.
"First meet" at the Ivy Championships isn't quite correct, though. They had first met in the second grade in their northern New Jersey community, and had been best friends ever since. In fact, Vloka convinced Roberts to give this sport of fencing a try.
Now, in possibly the final collegiate contest of their career, other than the NCAA Championships in March, they faced each other on the strip, the bellwethers of their respective teams.
"It would be one of my toughest bouts of the day," Roberts said. "I had to find whatever weakness Caroline had today. When I was able to identify it, I had to react. I made a really strong attack."
The tactic worked. With her proud parents looking on, as they had at every match this season, Sammy moved into the lead and held it. With a final exultant cry, she defeated Vloka, 5-2, and gave Columbia a 12-9 lead.
Fourteen would clinch the match for the Lions. Could they gain the two more victories?
First-year Diana Tsinis notched the thirteenth, 5-4 over Nadia Eldeib in epee. Another newcomer, Dianna Hohensee, then supplied the fourteenth, beating Kathy Chou in foil, 5-2.
As the Columbia team, which had been tracking the score all long, erupted, Hohensee wondered what all the fuss was about. She hadn't even known she was in reach of the decisive bout. "They don't tell us these things," she said.
Columbia clinched at 14-11, although Harvard won the last two bouts to make the final score 14-13.
Princeton had won the last two women's Ivy League championships. Columbia was the principal impediment to a third.
The Lions seemed more than equal to the task as the match began. Roberts defeated All-America Eliza Stone, 5-2; Loweye Diedro blanked Joanna Cichomski, 5-0; and Essane Diedro scored the last three touches to break a 2-2 tie and defeat Diamond Wheeler, 5-2. Sabre had given Columbia a 3-0 lead!
Even after the Tigers took two of three in both foil and epee, Columbia owned a 5-4 lead as Round One drew to a close. Roberts won the first bout of Round Two, 5-2 over Cichomski, but the Diedro sisters each lost 5-4 heartbreakers.
Princeton then swept foil, 3-0, and took of three in epee, for an 11-7 lead. The third round was all Orange, as Princeton went 7-2 in the round for a crushing 18-9 defeat of Columbia.
"That was a tough loss," Roberts said. "But we never stopped fighting and trying to win. And there's always something you can learn from a loss."
Princeton had only a weak Brown squad to beat to sew up its third straight title, but Columbia's fourth-straight second place would hardly be easy, as the Lions had to get past a solid Yale squad, which had been buoyed all weekend by loudly cheering home crowds.
"The Yale match was extremely tough," Roberts admitted, "We were all fatigued, all so tired."
You'd never know it by the results, though. Sabre won eight of nine bouts, and both foil and epee won seven of nine. Four Lions were a perfect 3-0 -- the Diedro sisters in sabre; D'Meca Homer in foil; and Lydia Kopecky in epee -- as Columbia won a 22-5 rout.
There was less at stake for the men's team, 1-1 after the first day's action.
Down 3-6 after the first round against Harvard, Columbia could never make up that deficit and lost, 15-12. The Princeton match was well within reach, too, Columbia trailing by just 10-8 after two rounds, but the Tigers pulled it out with two final victories for a 14-13 squeaker. Led by Will Spear's 3-0, sabre went 6-3.
The Lion men won their final match, 18-9 over Yale. The sabre squad of Spear, fellow first-year Michael Josephs, and sophomore Mel Rodriguez, each went 3-0 for a perfect 9-0 tally.
After going without a win in both 2010 and 2011, Columbia had captured third place with a 2-3 record, tied with Penn.
"The difference this year," sophomore epeeist Alex Pensler noted, was both the addition of several talented newcomers, and a collective team effort.
"We fenced more as a team this year, as opposed to fencing as individuals. We ALL were going after wins."
Michael Aufrichtig agreed.
"The men's team became a men's TEAM," he said. "They began to come out of their shell. The women's team did what they had to do to succeed. I thought this year's Ivy League Championship went well for us.
"There's been a lot of progress this season. We worked hard to get this far. We didn't just show up.
"I'm already looking forward to next year."

Few fencers worked as hard as Will Spear. The first-year student from Upstate New York "studied" under his brother, Lion great and NCAA champion Jeff Spear, now a Columbia assistant coach, and other mentors. It all paid off at this year's Ivy League Championships.
Spear won 13 bouts, the most of any male fencer, in 15 tries. He made first team All-Ivy League, determined by winning percentage, a rare honor for a first-year.
And the Ivy League head coaches noticed. They voted him the Outstanding Men's Rookie of the Year and, more importantly, the Outstanding Men's Performer of the Year.
"Will deserved it," Michael Aufrichtig. "That was an extremely strong men's sabre field. What he did in that strong a field -- it's amazing what he did!"
The results:

Ivy League Round-Robin Championships
Day Two - Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012
Coxe Cage, New Haven, Conn.

MEN (1-2 today, 2-3 tournament)

Harvard 15, Columbia 12
S: Spear 2-1, Rodriguez 2-1, Josephs 1-2 (5-4)
F: Charles 1-2, Pensler 2-1, Tuddenham 0-3 (3-6)
E: Hadzic 2-1, Leahy 2-1, Magnuson 0-3 (4-5)

Princeton 14, Columbia 13
S: Spear 3-0, Rodriguez 2-1, Josephs 1-2 (6-3)
F: Charles 0-3, Pensler 3-0, Tuddenham 0-3 (3-6)
E: Hadzic 0-3, Leahy 2-1, Tapai 2-1 (4-5)

Columbia 18, Yale 9
S: Spear 3-0, Rodriguez 3-0, Josephs 3-0 (9-0)
F: Charles 2-1, Pensler 2-1, Tuddenham 1-2 (5-4)
E: Hadzic 1-2, Leahy 2-1, Tapai 1-2 (4-5)

WOMEN (2-1 today, 5-1 tournament)

Columbia 14, Harvard 13

S: Roberts 3-0, E. Diedro 2-1, L Diedro 2-1 (7-2)
F: Hohensee 2-1, Homer 1-2, Caparros-Janto 0-3 (3-6)
E: Kopecky 1-1, Tsinis 2-1, Peterson 0-1, English 1-2 (4-5)

Princeton 18, Columbia 9
S: Roberts 2-1, E. Diedro 1-2, L. Diedro 2-1 (5-4)
F: Caparros-Janto 1-2, Hohensee 0-3, Homer 0-3 (1-8)
E: Kopecky 1-2, Tsinis 1-2, Gegan 1-1, English 0-1 (3-6)

Columbia 22, Yale 5
S: Roberts 2-1, E. Diedro 3-0, L. Diedro 3-0 (8-1)
F: Homer 3-0, Caparros-Janto 2-1, Hohensee 2-1 (7-2)
E: Kopecky 3-0, Tsinis 3-0, Peterson 0-1, English 1-0, Gegan 0-1 (7-2)


Final Standings

Men's: Princeton 5-0, Harvard 4-1, COLUMBIA and Penn 2-3; Brown and Yale 1-4
Women's: Princeton 6-0, COLUMBIA 5-1, Harvard 4-2, Penn 3-3, Yale 2-4, Brown 1-5, Cornell 0-6

Individual Standings (Columbia only)

Sabre: 1. Will Spear, 13-2; 5. Mel Rodriguez, 10-5; 8. Michael Josephs, 8-7
Foil: 2. Alex Pensler, 11-4; 9. Bo Charles, 7-8; 16. John Tuddenham, 2-13
Epee: 4. Sean Leahy, 9-6; 10. Alen Hadzic, 7-8. Also: Andrei Tapai, 5-4; Magnus Ferguson, 2-4

2. Loweye Diedro and Sammy Roberts, 15-3; 4. Essane Diedro, 14-4
Foil: 9. Abby Caparros-Janto and D'Meca Homer, 9-9; 1. Dianna Hohensee, 8-10
Epee: 3. Diana Tsinis, 11-4; 7. Lydia Kopecky, 9-5. Also: Emma Peterson, 5-3; Natalie Gegan, 4-3; Katya English, 5-5


Outstanding Performer of the Year (Men's): Will Spear, Columbia
Outstanding Rookie of the Year (Men's): Will Spear, Columbia

Outstanding Performer of the Year (Women's): Ambika Singh, Princeton
Outstanding Rookie of the Year (Women's): Ambika Singh, Princeton

2012 ALL-IVY LEAGUE (Columbia only)

First Team (men): Will Spear (Fr., Wynantskill, N.Y.), sabre; Alex Pensler (So., Chicago, Ill.), foil
First Team (women): Sammy Roberts (Sr., Upper Saddle River, N.J.), sabre;
Loweye Diedro (Jr., Freeport, N.Y.), sabre; Diana Tsinis (Fr., Little Neck, N.Y.), epee

Second Team (men): Mel Rodriguez (So., Bronx, N.Y.), sabre; Sean Leahy (Sr., Reston, Va.), epee
Second Team (women): Essane Diedro (Jr., Freeport, N.Y.), sabre