All college students experience a variety of firsts in their freshman year.
Few, however, can include a trip to the NCAA Championships in that list, which is exactly what Penn fencers Evan Prochniak and Aida Abdikulova will be able to do after this weekend.
The two freshmen, along with six other members of Penn’s men’s and women’s fencing teams, traveled to Cambridge, Mass., yesterday to participate in the NCAA Fencing Championships at Harvard.
Besides Prochniak, the men’s group includes junior Jacob Wishnia and sophomores Vidur Kapur and Alex Simmons. On the women’s side, Abdikulova is joined by an experienced trio of returning competitors: juniors Danielle Kamis and Stephanie Wheeler, and sophomore Dominika Franciszkowicz.
Although the freshmen may be lacking in direct NCAA Championship experience, they have both been fencing for years and have ample preparation for the pressure and atmosphere of large-scale tournaments.
“I’ve been fencing since I was six, so I’ve been to a lot of big competitions before. I’ve been to World Championships since 2006, so I really don’t feel that much pressure,” Prochniak said.
Additionally, many of the Quakers will be facing off against competitors they have known for years.
“I’ve been fencing with all of these kids my entire life,” Prochniak said. “We’ve all grown up together, and we all went to school and fenced.”
Kamis, a three-year veteran of the tournament, said she was “very nervous” in her first championship appearance. But she doesn’t see the same butterflies affecting her rookie teammate Abdikulova.
“The NCAAs weren’t that big of a shock for her,” Kamis said. “I think she was actually pretty relaxed and did well today.”
Abdikulova won five matches in the first day of competition, putting her in 16th place among foilists.
Led by Franciszkowicz, who had eight victories, the women sit in 10th place going into the second and final day of the championships
Abdikulova has proven that she performs well under pressure. In the NCAA Regionals on March 14, she placed 8th overall despite being seeded sixteenth.
Abdikulova and Prochniak aren’t the only ones making their first trips to the Championships. Although head coach Andy Ma has had a long and decorated career as a fencing coach, this season marks his first year of collegiate coaching, and this will be his first trip to the NCAAs.
Kamis, who was under Ma’s tutelage when she was younger, is glad to have him with the team. “I got a private warm-up lesson this morning, which I never used to get, and he is always on the strip with us, coaching us during bouts,” she said.
The men will also get the benefit of Ma’s coaching starting on Saturday, when their competition begins. Prochniak is ready to go and has his eyes on the prize. “I’m looking forward to fencing against Penn State and Notre Dame — they’re both the top two in the country.”
And while Prochniak may be a freshman, he’s not pulling any punches in his first NCAA championship experience.
“When I fenced Penn State earlier this year, I went undefeated, and I’d like to do the same thing.”
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