"I think we had a good day overall," head coach George Kolombatovich said. "I'm very pleased with their effort, both the men and women. They fenced the best they possibly could."
"Their "best" wasn't quite enough for the Columbia men's squad, probably the youngest and most-inexperienced team in the Ivy League Round-Robin tournament. The Lions fell to both Yale, 19-8, and Penn, 15-12.
However, the women's "best" placed them in excellent position for an Ivy League title. Columbia beat both Yale and Cornell by 21-6 scores, sandwiched around a hotly-contested 15-12 win over a tough Penn squad.
Leading the effort against the Quakers were two sophomores and a first-year. Sophomore Loweye Diedro, who didn't fence last season, and fellow second-year student, D'Meca Homer, won all three of their bouts against Penn, in sabre and foil, respectively, while first-year Nzingha Prescod also was 3-0 in foil. Their showings helped foil to a 7-2 record for the match, and sabre to 6-3.
Yet another "foilist" provided one of the team's most significant lifts all day. We put "foilist" in quotes because when Saturday dawned, first-year Gaby Strass was an epee fencer!
"D'Meca Homer came to me Friday evening with the suggestion that we ask Gaby to switch from epee to foil," Kolombatovich said. "I knew Gaby had fenced epee at one time. I said, 'Sounds like a great idea to me.' "
The Lions had searched all season for a third foil fencer to complement Prescod and Homer in the starting lineup. Strass, an athletic and heady fencer — both parents fenced at Notre Dame — seemed like the best solution to the problem.
They let Strass in on the idea just before Columbia took the strips in Jadwin Gymnasium for warm-ups.
"Sammy Roberts came to me," she recalled. "She explained that it was to help the team, to help the girls get a [championship] ring. I agreed [because] every one deserved a ring, they work so hard."
Strass had to drop all her epee tendencies, however, and revive foil skills she hadn't used in many years.
"It wasn't that bad," she explained. "Nzingha gave me mini-foil lessons before each bout, and I remembered a couple of things as I went along."
Strass, who comes from San Antonio, Texas, where she studied fencing under the late, great Paul Pesthy, lost her first three bouts against Yale and the first two against Penn. That set the stage for her third Penn match, against Quaker standout Wendy Zhao.
"It was intense," she recalled. "I fell behind 4-3, then tied it at 4-4. Then I came back to get the next touch and win, 5-4."
What move did she employ? Strass doesn't remember. "Muscle memory came back for me. I don't even remember the touch, but I remember all my teammates behind me." The Lions' roar could be heard all over the cavernous arena. "That's because you were giving 115%," teammate Stephanie Aiuto noted.
Strass finished the day with a 2-7 record, as Prescod was 9-0 and Homer was 8-1. They combined for a 19-8 foil record, second only to sabre's 22-5 behind Loweye Diedro, 9-0, and Sammy Roberts, 8-1. Epee, 16-11 overall, was led by Neely Brandfield-Harvey, 4-2, and Lydia Kopecky and Katya English, both 5-4.
First-year Alen Hadzic posted the best record for the men's team, 5-1 in epee. Junior Sean Leahy and first-year Magnus Ferguson were both 3-3 in epee, giving the squad an 11-7 record for the two matches. But foil was only 5-13 and sabre was 4-14.
Columbia begins the action Sunday at 10 a.m. against the defending men and women's champion Princeton Tigers, right in the Tigers' Jadwin Gym lair. They then meet Harvard, followed by Brown.
"Our women have beaten Harvard earlier this season, but we haven't met Princeton," Kolmbatovich said. "They're a little unknown. But we clearly are the deciding factor in the Ivy League race."
Ivy League Round-Robin Championships
Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011
Jadwin Gymnasium, Princeton, N.J.
21-6 Yale, 15-12 Penn, 21-6 Cornell
Leaders: Loweye Diedro (S) and Nzingha Prescod (F), 9-0; D'Meca Homer (F) and Sammy Roberts (S), 8-1
8-19 Yale, 12-15 Penn
Leaders: Alen Hadzic (F) 5-1; Sean Leahy (E), Magnus Ferguson (E), and Alex Pensler (F), 3-3