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Sophomore sabreist Michael Mills was an NCAA qualifier and fenced to a 31-13 overall record during his rookie campaign. A former New Jersey state champion in high school, he will start on a sabre squad assistant coach Randall LeMaster believes is the men’s team’s “strongest weapon.”

Photo: Frances Hu / The Daily Pennsylvanian

Penn fencing has an advantage that no other varsity team at the school can boast — the men and women go head to head in practice.

“I think it’s great that we get to fence the boys because they do tend to be stronger and have a little better skill set,” senior Dominika Franciszkowicz said. “It’s always been a good dynamic.”

Practicing with the men is just one of many advantages for the Penn women. They return three of their four NCAA qualifiers from last year in sabreist Franciszkowicz and two épéeists, junior Amrit Bhinder and sophomore Gabby Foor.

“On the women’s side, our strongest weapon is going to be foil,” assistant coach Randall LeMaster said. “We’ve got our starting lineup returning from last year, but we’ve got three freshmen that are looking phenomenal.”

Senior captain Laura Paragano, sophomore Wendy Zhao and junior Aida Abdikulova will begin the season — which starts this weekend at the Penn State Open — in the starting lineup.

Épée will also be a strength for the women. Either Lisa Dawes or Corey Novich, both sophomores, will be in the starting lineup alongside Foor and Bhinder, who placed seventh at NCAAs last year and was named a second-team All-American.

Youth extends to the men’s team, where freshmen and sophomores claim 15 of the 22 roster spots. “We have a very young squad,” LeMaster said. “These are [head coach Andy] Ma’s first two recruiting classes.”

Seniors Zane Grodman and Vidur Kapur, an honorable mention All-American and 12th-place NCAA finisher, will lead the men’s foil squad. Freshman Jason Chang will likely join them as a starter.

For men’s épée, sophomores Joseph Isaac and Clifford Fishler, an NCAA qualifier, are returning starters.

But LeMaster believes the men’s strongest weapon is their sabre.

“We have a lot of depth [there]. We could actually field two separate, top-notch NCAA teams,” he said.

The sabre squad returns four fencers who saw time last year in junior Evan Prochniak and sophomores Michael Mills, Josh Hammond and Elliot Tusk. The foursome will be joined by a trio of talented freshmen who could all compete for bouts.

Prochniak is the most decorated fencer on the men’s squad. Last season, he was first-team All-Ivy and All-American. He finished second at the Ivy Championships and reached the semifinals at NCAAs.

This year, he hopes to improve not only on his personal NCAA finish, but also the team’s success.

“I think winning Ivies is more important this year. Individual stuff is fun, but this year I want to get the Ivy ring,” he said. “Afterward I can focus on NCAAs.”

Both Prochniak and LeMaster mentioned that another goal for the team will be to qualify the maximum of 12 fencers — six men and six women, broken down into two per weapon — for NCAAs. With eight fencers last season, Penn placed eighth.

The Quakers’ grueling schedule this year includes the New England Invitational on Feb. 4, which LeMaster called a “grinder” at which a team can be “on the floor 12 hours straight.” The Ivy League Championships take place Feb. 11-12.

The Quakers’ experience and talent at each weapon bodes well for the team to make another deep run at the NCAA Championships in Columbus, Ohio, March 21-24.

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