What they didn't know, however, was that Hadzic's fencing was part of a plan -- a plan fashioned by Michael Aufrichtig when he succeeded the venerable George Kolombatovich as Columbia head coach, and a plan bought into by the Columbia team.
Aufrichtig had promoted success as a result of a true team atmosphere, and it was working. It had worked when the Lions fenced far better than expected in early-season meets against the nation's collegiate elite, it had worked when men's fencing rose from two last-place finishes to third in the 2012 Ivy League Championships, it had worked in the NCAA Regionals, and it was working here in Columbus, Ohio, at the NCAA Championships.
Hadzic, a sophomore from Montclair, New Jersey, who had finished ninth in his first NCAA, in 2011, had won six of nine bouts on Day Four of this NCAA's, which combined with his 11-4 record Saturday, earned him second place in the team men's epee competition, and a place in the Epee Final Four.
During the two-day competition, he had been paired with the two Ohio State epeeists, Boyadzhiev and Marco Canevari, and knew what to expect from Boyadzhiev. But the Buckeye All-American had scored touch after touch on Hadzic as the crowd looked on in St. John Arena, transforming a 3-2 Hadzic lead to a 6-3 Boyadzhiev advantage before Alen could score another touch. He expanded that to five touches at 11-6 and then 12-7.
"I had a plan set up with my coach," Hadzic explained. "I wasn't doing my preparation correctly."
"Alen was just missing," Aufrichtig said.
Following the break, as onlookers waited for the "inevitable" three touches Boyadzhiev would need to win the bout, Hadzic changed his strategy slightly. He induced doubt in the Ohio Stater; suddenly he wasn't sure what Hadzic was going to do.
Alen hit his eighth touch, then his ninth. The 10th and 11th ensued, then the 12th. All but lost a few moments ago, the bout was tied at 12-12!
And Boyadzhiev's nightmare continued. Another hit made it 13-12 Hadzic, then 14-12 with another. Alen was one touch from victory when Boyadzhiev finally scored. In the intense atmosphere, Hadzic certainly could have given way, but he was unfazed. "I just kept doing what I was doing," he said.
Hadzic attacked again, and was awarded a double touch, making the final score 15-14 in his favor.
In the finals, Alen faced an old foe and friend, Princeton's Jon Yergler. Hadzic never led against Yergler, who was 2011 NCAA runner-up, twice drawing even, at 1-1 and 2-2. From a 5-4 score, Yergler hit four of the next six touches for a 9-6 lead at the one-minute break.
Hadzic scored a touch after the break to come within two at 9-7, only to see Yergler post five more touches in a row, and a 14-8 lead. The bout ended moments later, at 15-8.
"Jon adjusted, and did what he had to do," Aufrichtig noted. "But if there had been a next bout, Alen could just as easily have won." In this one, however, Yergler was facing an utterly spent opponent.
"In the final," Hadzic said, "I was mentally exhausted. Jon was second last year, he really was in it [this year] to win it. He fenced awfully well; he reacted to the pressure better than I did."
Alen was the first Columbia fencer to reach the national finals since Nicole Ross won the women's foil championship in 2010. He finished the highest of any men's fencer since Dwight Smith was third in men's epee the same year.
With a top-four finish, Hadzic earned first-team All-America honors. His two Columbia teammates in the NCAA men's competition, first-years Will Spear and Michael Josephs, also made All-America. Spear, who finished fifth in Men's Sabre, just four touches short of the Sabre Final Four, is second team All-America, while Josephs earned third team All-America after finishing 11th, also in sabre.
The NCAA's are a true test of skill and pressure, particularly so for first-years who are new to the format. That made Spear and Joseph's showings even more impressive.
"I'm not surprised," said assistant coach Jeff Spear, himself a former NCAA men's sabre champion. "I knew both Will and Michael were capable of performing the way they did. I thought they would fence this well, and they proved me right. I'm very proud of both of them."
Both Will Spear and Josephs saved their best for the final day. Spear defeated Max Stearns of Ohio State, then the tournament leader, by a 5-2 score, and All-Ivy Leaguer Evan Prochniak of Penn, 5-4. He defeated Adrian Bak of Penn State in a fiercely-contested bout, 5-3, and Ohio State's Rhys Douglas, 5-0.
Josephs surprised the St. John's sabre tandem, topping Sean Buckley, 5-1, and Alejandro Rojas, 5-3. He completed a perfect 3-0 round by beating Peter Souders of Boston College, 5-4.
"This was a completely different kind of tournament than any I've been in before," Josephs noted. "Every touch matters … my bout against Buckley was the best fencing I have done for a while."
Michael Aufrichtig was similarly impressed with his young sabre fencers. "Michael beat the St. John's fencers, he swept Princeton's two fencers the first day, including Philip Dershwitz, who made the final four. He finished two spots ahead of Rhys Douglas, and had plus 15 indicators to Douglas's minus 3, meaning he had 18 more touches than Douglas. This was the best and smartest I have ever seen him fence."
Columbia was one of the most talked-about teams at the NCAA Championships, in part because they were the tourney's dragon slayers. From D'Meca Homer's defeat of defending women's foil champion Alex Kiefer of Harvard in Homer's second bout of the event, to Spear beating Bak and Josephs topping Buckley on the last day, the "U" in Columbia could have stood for "upset".
Senior co-captain Sammy Roberts, in her final college competition, seemingly saved the best for last. On the first day of the women's competition, although limited by the injury she suffered in the NCAA Regionals, Roberts defeated former NCAA champion Caroline Vloka of Harvard, 5-4, and on the final day, she shocked defending NCAA women's sabre champion Becca Ward of Duke, 5-3.
Roberts' victory over Vloka carried great significance. Friends since second grade in their northern New Jersey community -- Vloka convinced Roberts to give the sport of fencing a try -- they had met many times in collegiate competition. In their penultimate college competition, Roberts also had posted a win - a key 5-2 victory in Columbia's defeat of Harvard in the Ivy League Championships in February.
Today's results, and final standings:
NCAA M&W Fencing Championships (Day Four)
Sunday, March 25, 2012
French Fieldhouse, The Ohio State University
1. Ohio State, 182 points (wins); 2. Princeton, 161; 3. Notre Dame, 160; 4. St. John's, 158; 5. Penn State, 151; 6. Harvard, 136; 7. Penn, 124; 8. COLUMBIA, 97; 9. Duke, 67; 10. Stanford, 62; 11. Northwestern, 52; 12. Yale, 50; 13. Brown, 44; 14. Temple, 40; 15. Air Force, 26; 16. Sacred Heart, 23; 17. Wayne State, 19; 18. Cornell; 19. Boston College and North Carolina, 19; 21. Vassar, 12; 22. NYU, 11; 23. Brandeis, 7; 24. MIT, 5; 25. UC San Diego, 1
Individual Standings (leaders and Columbia fencers, with victories)
1. Aleksander Ochocki, Penn State, 17 - gold medal
2. Valentin Staller, Harvard, 15 - silver medal
3. Max Stearns, Ohio State, 19, and Philip Dershwitz, Princeton, 16 - bronze medals
5. Will Spear, COLUMBIA, 15
6. Adrian Bak, Penn State, 14
7. Kevin Hassett, Notre Dame, 14
8. Evan Prochniak, Penn, 13
9. Alejandro Rojas, St. John's, 13
10. Sean Buckley, St. John's, 13
11. Michael Josephs, COLUMBIA, 12
12. Nathaniel Benzimra, Yale, 12
1. Zain Shaito, Ohio State, 19 - gold medal
2. Turner Caldwell, Stanford, 17 - silver medal
3. Enzo Castellani, Notre Dame, 16, and Alexander Mills, Princeton, 18 - bronze medals
5. Reggie Bentley, Notre Dame, 16
6. Vidur Kapur, Penn, 15
7. Shiv Kachru, Yale, 14
8. Lucas Lin, Harvard, 14
9. Eli Schenkel, St. John's, 14
10. Daniel Gomez Tanamachi, Penn State, 13
11. Alex Chiang, Air Force, 13
12. Brian Kaneshige, Harvard, 13
Note: No Columbia qualifiers in Men's Foil
1. Jonathan Yergler, Princeton, 15 - gold medal
2. Alen Hadzic, COLUMBIA, 17 - silver medal
3. Marco Canevari, 19, and Kristian Boyadzhiev, 16, both Ohio State - bronze medals
5. Nicholas Vomero, St. John's, 15
6. Peregrine Badger, Harvard, 14
7. James Kaull, Notre Dame, 14
8. Edward Kelley, Princeton, 13
9. Kiam Ameli, Stanford, 13
10. Rene Gannon-O'Gara, Penn, 13
11. Marat Israelian, St. John's, 12
12. Tristan Jones, Duke, 12
All-Americans (men and women) - Columbia only
First Team: Alen Hadzic, So., epee
Second Team: Lydia Kopecky, Jr., epee, and Will Spear, Fr., sabre
Third Team*: Michael Josephs, Fr., sabre, Sammy Roberts, Sr. (sabre)
*third team All-American was formerly honorable mention