Eleven warriors, brave and bold, will travel to San Antonio to represent the Ohio State varsity fencing team at next week's NCAA Fencing National Championships. While the Buckeyes are the defending National Champions, the bad news is that they did not earn the maximum of 12 participants, hurting their chances of repeating.
The good news is that only two teams did achieve a full roster of fencers, the fewest since 2005 when only one team had 12 fencers. In 2005 Ohio State had only qualified 9 fencers and was written off as a contender, but the Buckeyes shattered records for most bouts won by a Men's squad and placed third, above teams with more fencers. So take a note from history and don't quite count out the Buckeyes yet, but it will a tough road back to the title.
The NCAA Championships are done in something of a unique format. Fencing meets have six separate events, separating the different styles of swords that inspired the different events. The three weapons are Foil, Epee, and Sabre and there is a Men's and Women's category for each of them. At the NCAA Championships everyone in a particular category, say Men's Sabre, fences one big round robin over the course of two days.
The team that wins the most matches is awarded the team title, and the top four winners in each event is then fences a short bracket to determine the individual national champion.
Each of those round robin matches are fenced to 5 points, a point total used normally in preliminary seeding matches at National tournaments. The majority of fencing matches are fought to 15 points, giving fencers more time to adjust their strategies and play the complicated game of physical chess that is fencing. Having high pressure matches only go to five would be similar to having March Madness games end after 15 minutes of play. Upsets, even in the most lopsided of matches, would become common.
The NCAA Championships are a mental grind as things can snowball extremely quickly in this fast paced format. I have been told by teammates and friends who have competed in World Championships and even the Olympic Games they have never been more mentally exhausted than they were at the end of NCAAs.
In to this breach steps an Ohio State squad with a fair amount of NCAA veterans. The Olympic foil brother-and-sister pair of Zain and Mona Shaito, now includes their younger sister Mai. In sabre a pair of seniors look to make their final run a memorable one in Max Sterns and Allison Miller. Marco Canevari, an Italian transplanted to Columbus, looks to repeat his success at this Championship meet having made the final four the last two years in a row.
The talent pool this Buckeye squad will be diving into at this year's National Championships is very deep with many fencers who made the top four in their weapon returning in addition to six 2012 Olympians.
Notre Dame is one of the teams that has 12 fencers and are likely the most complete team headed to San Antonio. Their Men's team, ranked #2 in the coaches poll, is led by U.S. Olympic Men's Foil team member Gerek Meinhardt and their #1 ranked women's team boasts Olympic epee fencer Kelley Hurley, in addition to Lee Kiefer, who as a high schooler shocked the fencing world when she finished 5th in Women's Foil in London last summer.
Princeton also boasts a full complement of fencers, including Susannah Scanlan an Olympian, and several fencers who have placed very well at NCAAs in the past. Princeton also has a pair of Chicagoan sisters in sabre, Eliza and Gracie Stone, who came up training with Ohio State's Miller.
Then there are the five other teams with 11 fencers, including the traditional powerhouse and still very dangerous Penn State who's Miles Chamley-Watson has made it to the finals of the Men's Foil bracket on three occasions. St. John's will also be a contender with senior and U.S. Olympic stand out Daryl Homer looking to make it a three-peat as Men's Sabre champion, and defending Women's Foil champion Evgeniya Kirpicheva.
This is a very close field with 10 teams who have a nearly equal mathematical chance of winning the national title. Looking at a more athlete by athlete basis Ohio State could very well place in the middle of the pack or win the entire thing, but Notre Dame looks to be strong favorite. Princeton could ride their strong women's team to a 1st place finish but they would need their men's team to deliver in the clutch. Similarly Penn State needs their women's team to complement their #1 Men's squad to have a chance at winning.
Ohio State would need to overachieve on both sides, but crazier things have happened at this competition.
Here is a look at the Buckeye Squad that will be competing from March 21 - 24
Marco Canevari, Daniel Tafoya
Chris Colley, Zain Shaito
Katarzyna Dabrowa, Caroline Piasecka
Mona Shaito, Mai Shaito
Celine Merza, Alison Miller