Fencers Capture Gold and Silver at First U.S. Collegiate Squad Championships
Courtesy: Columbia University Athletics/Gene Boyars
GREENWICH VILLAGE, N.Y. — Columbia's third trip this season to NYU's Jerome Coles Gymnasium turned out to be its best, as the Lions earned gold and silver team medals at the inaugural United States Collegiate Squad Championships.
Fencing with the skill and determination they demonstrated in helping women's fencing to take second in the Ivy League Championships two weeks ago, women's epee and women's sabre captured medals in the unusual Squad Championships relay format.
The epee squad earned a gold medal after edging Penn in the championship bout, 34-31, while sabre gained silver after losing a narrow 45-42 decision for the gold medal to Notre Dame.
The tournament, the brainchild of long-time NYU head coach Steve Mormando, utilized the rare relay format. Each weapon squad, consisting of three fencers as usual, fenced bouts of at least five touches — in a relay toward reaching 45 touches. If a fencer took the strip with his or her team leading, he or she had to make at least five touches, as usual. If their team was trailing, however, they had to score as many touches as possible, before the opponent earned the fifth touch.
It made for long but action-packed bouts and matches, delighting the vocal crowd that filled much of Coles Gymnasium.
"You rely more on your teammates in this format," co-captain Sammy Roberts said. "It's more fun this way."
Roberts and her fellow women's sabre fencers kicked off the Championships early Sunday morning. After an opening round bye, the top-seeded Lions beat Penn, 45-23, to set up a championship bout with Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish took an early 5-3 lead as All-American Eileen Hassett defeated Roberts, 5-3. After Sarah Bormann, another ND All-American, edged Essane Diedro, 5-4, the Irish margin went to three, 10-7. Essane's sister, Loweye, beat Abigail Nichols, 7-4, to bring the Lion team to within one, 15-14, but Hassett beat Essane Diedro, 5-2, for a 20-16 lead.
When Essane beat Nichols, 5-4, Columbia rallied to take the lead, 35-34, but the Irish scored two more wins for a narrow 45-42 championship victory.
"We were behind most of the way," Roberts said, "but we fought back really hard, and kept picking away at the deficit."
Perhaps learning from sabre's example, epee played it differently. The Lion epeeists fought their way into the lead by the third bout of the gold-medal match, and never relinquished it — although there were some very, very scary moments.
Columbia had surged into the championship match with big wins over Haverford, 45-18, and NYU, 45-31. The top-seeded Quakers were a different story, though.
Penn took a 5-4 lead after the first bout, but Columbia tied at 9-9 when Neely Brandfield-Harvey edged Amrit Bhinder, 6-4. First-year Katya English gave her team a slim 11-10 lead with a 2-1 win over Gabriella Foor — epee bouts, limited by time, often end before five touches are reached — and first-year Gaby Strass then put the Lions up three, 18-15, with a 7-5 win over Stephanie Wheeler.
The Quakers never overtook the Lions. They battled back to within one once and two, twice. The two-point margin, 23-21, remained at two when neither English nor Wheeler could score one touch in the time allowed, as their bout ended in a 0-0 tie.
The final outcome would fall to Penn sophomore Amrit Bhinder and Columbia sophomore Lydia Kopecky. They knew each other well.
"Amrit is my teammate at the New York Athletic Club," Kopecky admitted. "I've fenced her many times."
Lydia took over with that two-point margin, 23-21, and expanded it to three, 27-24. Touches do not come easily in epee, and the crowd gasped at every one.
Just as Lydia's teammates were beginning to relax, however, Bhinder caught fire. She closed the gap to 28-27 and then tied it at 28-all, which went to 29-all when they scored simultaneous touches, another epee exclusive.
"That was scary," Kopecky conceded. There were fewer than 25 seconds to go.
However, she noted, "I knew what to do. I picked [hit] her wrist." The touch gave Lydia a 30-29 lead, and with just 16 seconds left, Bhinder had no choice but to attack.
Abandoning her controlled style, Bhinder "attacked very many times," as Kopecky noted, "she had to, in a small amount of time."
The score opened up, as Kopecky countered with touches at 13 and nine seconds. The latter made it 32-29 and all but put it away. The bout, and gold medal came a few seconds later on a 34-31 win.
"Penn had defeated us at Ivies," Kopecky explained later, "and we discussed it. We said if we could get a one-touch lead, we would stay there. Even if we got up by two touches, we would keep the score low."
Lydia had never fenced in a relay format before, but thought she would like it.
"I knew Columbia would do well," she said. "We can fence [well] if there are more than five touches in a bout.
"This type of fencing really shows your depth as a team. I really like it."
Women's foil was unable to match its teammates, losing to North Carolina and NYU to finish sixth.
The men's team posted one sixth and two seventh-place finishes. Epee went 1-2 for sixth, beating North Carolina, and foil was 2-2 in taking seventh, with wins over Yeshiva, 45-15, and Hunter, 45-31.
Sabre also was 2-2 for seventh, defeating NYU and Hunter, losing to North Carolina and Johns Hopkins. Although they fell by 45-38 to a good Tar Heel squad, the Lions demonstrated some fine fencing. That's what Jeff Spear thought, and he ought to know.
Spear, Columbia's former All-American sabre fencer, works as an official these days. He officiated bouts at the tournament all morning, then took the afternoon off to rest an ailing ankle and cheer on his ex-teammates. In the North Carolina match, he saw much to cheer about.
"Billy and Mel," he stated, with emphasis in his voice, "Billy and Mel fenced better against North Carolina than I've ever seen them fence."
Billy Fink, Columbia's junior co-captain, got his team off well against the Tar Heels with a 5-3 win over Kevin Zeichmann. Mel Rodriguez followed with another win, 5-2, and a 10-5 Lion team lead.
UNC went up 15-11 as Jon Blake bested the Lions' Tomasz Otlowski, 10-1, but Fink put them back on top at 20-18 with a 9-3 win over Sam Austin.
Rodriguez split his next two bouts, though, and Fink lost his final one, allowing North Carolina to fight back to a 45-38 win.
"I felt like I was pretty on," Fink recalled after the bout. "That was good, as I was looking to lift everyone up." He cited Rodriguez as a major factor in Columbia's showing. "I fed off the energy of Melvin," Fink noted. "If I was on, he was 10 times more on."
Like the ideal captain, Fink often thinks of his teammates. The relay format helped them, he said, explaining that, "it was good for my teammates. It made it easy for me to find extra motivation to support them."
Columbia's next competition will be the all-important NCAA Regionals, Sunday, March 13 at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The all-day action begins at 8:30 a.m.
Today's results:

United States Collegiate Squad Championships
Sunday, February 27, 2011
Jerome Coles Gymnasium, NYU, Greenwich Village, N.Y.

Women's Weapons

1. Notre Dame; 2. COLUMBIA; 3. NYU & Penn; 5. North Carolina; 6. Yale; 7. Haverford

Columbia (seeded 1)
W Penn, 45-23
L Notre Dame, 45-42
Place: 2nd

1. Brown; 2. Penn; 3. Haverford & North Carolina; 5. NYU; 6. COLUMBIA; 7. Yale

Columbia (5)
L North Carolina, 45-32
L NYU, 45-29
Place: 6th

1. COLUMBIA; 2. Penn; 3. Brown & NYU; 5. North Carolina; 6. Yale; 7. Haverford; 8. Fairleigh Dickinson

Columbia (2)
W Haverford, 45-18
W NYU, 45-31
W Penn, 34-31
Place: 1st

Men's Weapons

1. Penn; 2. North Carolina; 3. Brown & Yale; 5. Haverford; 6. Johns Hopkins; 7, COLUMBIA; 8. NYU; 9. Yeshiva; 10. Hunter

Columbia (7)
W Hunter, 45-15
L North Carolina, 45-38
L Johns Hopkins 45-44
W NYU, 45-32
Place: 7th


1. Notre Dame; 2, Yale; 3. NYU & Penn; 5. North Carolina; 6. Brown; 7. COLUMBIA; 8. Hunter; 9. Haverford; 10. Yeshiva

Columbia (7)

W Yeshiva, 45-15
L Yale, 45-24
L North Carolina, 45-33
W Hunter, 45-31
Place: 7th

1. Ohio State; 2. Yale; 3. Penn & Haverford; 5. NYU; 6. COLUMBIA; 7. North Carolina; 8. Brown; 9. Hunter; 10. Yeshiva

Columbia (3)
L Haverford, 45-42
W North Carolina, 45-41
L NYU, 45-39
Place: 6th