COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Utilizing remarkable balance in both of their fully-staffed weapons, the Columbia women's fencers forged a solid seventh place on the first day of the 2012 NCAA Championships.
Women's epee won 16 of 28 bouts, and women's sabre captured 15 of 26. Each weapon boasted two Columbia competitors. Combined with women's foil, which had only one Columbia entrant, the Lions scored 35 points (wins). The total tied them with Penn for seventh, 16 behind the tournament leaders, but ahead of such schools as Northwestern, Stanford, Duke and Yale.
The NCAA format is a daunting one. Unlike virtually every national and international competition, it consists of five-touch bouts, fenced in rapid-fire style, one right after the other, with only short breaks in between rounds. There were four rounds the first day, resulting in 14 bouts each.
"This format is definitely difficult," epeeist Diana Tsinis said. Competing at NCAA's for the first time, the first-year student admitted, "even in national tournaments, I've never experienced so much fencing in one day."
Although they would fence 14 bouts, each of the Lions recognized the importance of starting well.
"My hardest bout of the day was my first," fellow epeeist Lydia Kopecky said. "I  wanted to start off right." Kopecky's initial bout was against Tsinis, a hard-fought 4-3 victory for the veteran.
Lydia went on to take four of five in the round, defeating two Stanford fencers and Zsofia Fath of St. John's. Her only loss was to another Red Storm athlete, Alina Ferdman.
"Lydia showed a lot of courage [in her choice of strategies]," head coach Michael Aufrichtig noted. "She was making Olympics-type touches, and she never lost an overtime bout." In one bout, she spotted Stanford's Ashley Titan an opening touch, and then reeled off five straight for the win, so quickly Titan was left shaking her head.
Tsinis had a significant win over Fath. With the bout tied, 1-1, there were three straight double touches, possible only in epee, bringing the score to 4-3 in Tsinis's favor. Diana then struck for the winning touch in the 5-3 bout.
She had another noteworthy bout against Rebecca Chung of Stanford. Leading 4-2, Tsinis saw Chung knot the bout at 4-4. Something decisive was called for, and Tsinis came through. She started her arm above her head, then brought it down and caught Chung with the winning touch on the backhand.
"That's a priem," Aufrichtig said, giving the technical term for the unorthodox maneuver. "She caught Chung with a sneak attack."
Tsinis demonstrated again and again that the NCAA format was no barrier to success. She compiled a 7-7 record, including later wins over Emily D'Agostino of Duke and Oksana Samorodov of Penn State, both by 5-3 scores, and the St. John's fencers, Fath and Ferdman, also by 5-3 counts.
"I did really well against Oksana and the St. John's fencers," Tsinis said. "We train at the same club."
Aufrichtig cited the epeeists' work ethic for their success. "They both put in a lot of time," he said, "going to both Columbia practices and [those] at their clubs. Lydia takes a fencing lesson in the morning, goes to regular practice in the afternoon, and attends strength and conditioning in between. Diana practices all week, then goes home to Long Island for the weekend and practices with her club."
Women's sabre loomed as a question mark for the Lions. Senior Sammy Roberts was hoping to bounce back from the injury at the NCAA Regionals that nearly ended her season, and junior Essane Diedro was in her first NCAA competition.
But Roberts showed little effects of the injury, winning eight of 13 bouts -- a ninth win was nullified when a Northwestern fencer was forced from the tourney by an injury, and all her bouts were erased -- to move into ninth place. She edged Ivy League standouts Caroline Vloka of Harvard, Diamond Wheeler of Princeton, and her teammate Essane Diedro, all by 5-4 scores. Roberts topped another old foe, Martyna Wieczorek of St. John's, 5-3, and shut out Robin Shin of MIT, 5-0.
Roberts surprised Abigail Nichols of Notre Dame, 5-1, and then Diedro stunned the Fighting Irish woman, rallying from a huge 4-1 deficit to triumph, 5-4.
Diedro nearly matched Roberts, going 7-7 for 12th place in the 24-person field  (she also had a win over the Northwestern fencer nullified). By 5-2, Essane defeated Kara Lee of Harvard, who had beaten Roberts, as well as two Beantowners, Chelsea Rosenbauer of Boston College, and Shin.
But her most significant victories were over two Princeton Tigers, Eliza Stone and Diamond Wheeler. Stone, one of the favorites to win the women's sabre competition, is known for a ruthless sense of aggression on the fencing strip, but Diedro was ready for her.
"I came out strong from the beginning against Eliza," Essane recalled. "Eliza is aggressive, and I was able to bring my aggressiveness up. [It was a case of] "fighting fire with fire." With her twin sister Loweye cheering from the sidelines, Essane defeated Stone, 5-3, and Wheeler, 5-4.
D'Meca Homer, the only Columbia foil fencer to qualify for the NCAA's, experienced tough going. She won just four bouts, but one may have been the Lions' headliner for the day.
In just her second bout of the opening round, D'Meca found herself pitted against Alexandra Kiefer of Harvard, the defending NCAA women's foil champion. Kiefer was ready to defend her crown, but she would have to get past the Lion junior.
The Harvard star scored the first touch, and the second. Homer notched one, then fell behind 3-1. But she was making Kiefer work for every touch, and the bout duration lengthened.
Suddenly Homer scored a second touch, and then a shocker to tie the sore at 3-3. Seconds later, the bout reached its time limit, necessitating a sudden-death overtime.
As the official gave the command to start fencing, Homer saw her chance. She struck, and scored! Just six seconds into overtime, D'Meca Homer owned a victory over the defending NCAA champion!
The NCAA's continue tomorrow with the final three rounds to determine the team standings, the individual titles, and Al-Americans. Fencing begins at 9:30 a.m.
Today's results:

NCAA M&W Fencing Championships (Day One)
Thursday, March 22, 2012
French Fieldhouse, The Ohio State University

1. Notre Dame, Ohio State and Penn State, all 51 points (wins); 4. Princeton, 50; 5. St. John's, 48; 6. Harvard, 41; 7. COLUMBIA and Penn, 35; 9. Northwestern, 34; 10. Temple, 23; 11. Duke, 22; 12. Brown, 13; 13. Cornell, 10; 14. Stanford and Yale, 8; 16. North Carolina, 5; 17. Boston College and Sacred Heart, 2; 19. MIT and UC San Diego, 1  

Individual Standings (leaders and Columbia fencers, with victories)

Women's Sabre

1. Monica Aksamit, Penn State, 12
2. Becca Ward, Duke, 12
3. Caroline Vloka, Harvard, 10
4. Eliza Stone, Princeton, 9
5. Lian Osier, Notre Dame, 9
6. Nicole Glon, Penn State, 9
7. Anna Limbach, St. John's, 9
9. Sammy Roberts, COLUMBIA, 8
12. Essane Diedro, COLUMBIA, 7

Women's Foil
1. Mona Shaito, Ohio State, 14
2. Luona Wang, Penn, 12
3. Dayana Sarkisova, Northwestern, 11
4. Evgeniya Kirpicheva, St. John's, 10
5. Grace Hartman, Notre Dame, 10
6. Alina Antokhina, Penn State, 10
22. D'Meca Homer, COLUMBIA, 4

Women's Epee
1. Margherita Guzzi Vincenti, Penn State, 13
2. Kate Cavanaugh, Northwestern, 13
3. Katherine Holmes, Princeton, 11
4. Katarzyna Dabrowa, Ohio State, 11
5. Ashley Severson, Notre Dame, 10
6. Nicole Ameli, Notre Dame, 10
7. Hannah Safford, Princeton, 10
9. Lydia Kopecky, COLUMBIA, 9
13. Diana Tsinis, COLUMBIA, 7