NEW YORK -- The calendar said it was November, but the intensity level indicated otherwise at the Columbia Invitational Friday which kicked off fencing's collegiate season. The Columbia men's team swept three matches, and the women were 1-1, with all eyes focused on Princeton.
    
The Tigers were Ivy League champions last February, and went on to annex the NCAA Championship. The atmosphere in University Gym resembled that at either of those championships, both among the fencers and the crowd that overflowed the gym.
    
"Everyone was excited about this match," sophomore foilist Harry Bergman said. "We lost to Princeton at Ivies last year, and most of their team is exactly the same. We really wanted to beat them."
    
The men's team did defeat the Tigers, 19-8, as well as two other Garden State schools, Stevens (23-4) and New Jersey Institute of Technology (24-3). The women also beat NJIT by a 24-3 score, but lost a thriller to Princeton, 14-13. The Lion women were deprived of a chance for another victory when the Tufts women's team was forced to cancel its trip due to illness.
    
The Columbia men's sabre team could take credit for some of the intensity, their sweep of the Tigers in the first three bouts by a combined 15-7 getting the crowd roaring. Sabre continued its success in the next two rounds, going 8-1 vs. Princeton.
    
Men's epee won six of nine bouts, and men's foil was 5-4. "Every squad did its job," Bergman noted.
    
Juniors Will Spear and Michael Josephs won all three of their bouts in the Princeton match, as did sophomore epeeist Brian Ro.
    
"It was nice to see everything come together," Spear said. "It opens up possibilities for the future."
    
The Columbia women's chance of victory was very uncertain. Although Princeton had been hurt by graduation, the Lions had been virtually devastated by losses caused by injury, as well as graduation.
    
True, Columbia boasted one of the best foil squads in the nation in Olympian Nzingha Prescod and sophomore internationalist Jackie Dubrovich, each of whom was 3-0. But fellow international standout Margaret Lu would miss the match with an injury.
    
Both sabre and epee would be forced to depend on inexperienced fencers, and it was they who came through.
    
No one did more than sophomore sabrist Sarah Yee. She won two of three against the Tigers, two superb victories.
    
In the second round, Yee came up against an experienced national standout in senior Diamond Wheeler. Moreover, the Lion was hurting.
    
She had been injured in practice Thursday morning, badly enough to be seen at St. Lukes Hospital. Both head coach Michael Aufrichtig and head athletic trainer Jim Gossett doubted that Yee would be able to fence Friday.
    
"Jim treated me, and asked me if I thought I could fence," she said. "Michael felt I should fence one bout and then he would decide if I could continue."
    
The bout didn't go well, and Yee expected to be pulled from the lineup. But Aufrichtig left her in. It proved a wise decision.
    
"My mindset," Yee said, "was to try to win every touch. Before I knew it, I led, 4-2." Wheeler scored to draw within 4-3, but Sarah was ready. "I had given up the lead in [several] bouts at the North American Cup in Cleveland last week, and lost 5-4. There was pressure, mental pressure on me to finish."
    
That she did, winning 5-3. Her next bout was against another formidable Princeton fencer, Desirae Major.
    
Yee had seen Diamond Wheeler fence before, but hadn't seen Major much. Yee took the lead, then Major caught up. Then the Lions' new sabre coach, Aki Spencer-El, called timeout.
    
"Aki stopped the bout," Yee recalled. "gave me some great advice and it worked." Turns out the advice did work, as Yee won, 5-4.
    
Over on the epee strip, two Lions were struggling, but Vivian Rand stepped up. The Californian posted huge upsets over Audrey Abend and Anna Van Brummen.
    
"Vivian had an amazing day!" Aufrichtig said. "In her first college matches, she beat Van Brummen, who is first or second in the US Fencing Junior point standings, and Abend, who just finished second in the international competition in Bratislava."
    
The veteran epeeist Diana Tsinis, who also had struggled, brought Columbia to the brink of victory when she shocked Susie Scanlan, 5-4. Scanlan was the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist.
    
Two more wins and Columbia would have the victory. But first-year Sara Taffel, substituting for the injured Lu, lost a taut 5-3 decision to Sharon Gao to give Princeton the deciding point.
    
"We were all pulling for Sara," Yee said. "I'm so proud of our team. There was so much tension in the room. Everyone was so into it."
    
Today's fencing, Aufrichtig told the team after the conclusion of the matches, "shows how much we've done the past two months." He cautioned that their fine showing against Princeton would really put the Tigers on alert.
    
"We'll have to train even harder to prepare for February's Ivy Championship. They'll be coming for us. We'll have to be that much more ready."
    
The Lions will head up north in their next competition, the Brandeis Invitational December 8 at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. The Lions will meet the Air Force Academy, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Boston College, and the host school.

Today's results:

Columbia Invitational
(Columbia, Princeton, Stevens, New Jersey Inst. of Technology)
University Gym/Columbia Fencing Room
Friday, November 22, 2013

MEN'S TEAM (3-0)

Columbia 23, Stevens 4
S: Spear 3-0, Josephs 3-0, Loss 3-0 (9-0 combined)
F: Mathieu 3-0, Bergman 2-1, Johnston 2-1 (7-2)
E: Ro 2-1, Hoyle 3-0, 2-1 (7-2)

Columbia 19, Princeton 8
S: Spear 3-0, Josephs 3-0, Loss 2-1 (8-1)
F: Mathieu 2-1, Bergman 1-2, Johnston 2-1 (5-4)
E: Ro 3-0, Hoyle 2-1, Wan 1-2 (6-3)

Columbia 24, NJIT 3
S: Gokea 2-1, Ahn 3-0, Costin 2-0, Rodriguez 1-0 (8-1)
E: Tapai 3-0, Singh 3-0, Basile 1-0, Ridge 1-0, Schorr 1-0 (9-0)
F:  Tuddenham 1-0, Pensler, 3-0, Beckerman 2-1 (7-2), Doyle (1-1)

WOMEN'S TEAM (1-1)

Princeton 14, Columbia 13
S: Yee 2-1, Muhammad 0-3, Boenning 0-3 (2-7)
F: Prescod 3-0, Dubrovich 3-0, Taffel 2-1 (8-1)
E: Tsinis 1-2, Speta 0-3, Rand 2-1 (3-6)

Columbia 24, NJIT 3
S: Yee 3-0, Boenning 3-0, Freeman 2-1 (8-1)
F: Dubrovich 2-0, Laffey 3-0, Taffel 3-0 (9-0), Prescod 1-0
E: Rand 0-1, Speta 3-0, Green 2-0, Moiseiwitsch 2-1 (7-2)

Other Team Scores
Men: Princeton 24, NJIT 3; Princeton 21, Stevens 6; Stevens 17, NJIT 10
Women: Princeton 25, NJIT 2