The University of Pennsylvania is an institution steeped in athletic tradition — from the Palestra, which has hosted more college basketball games than any other arena in the country, to Franklin Field, the former stomping ground of football legends John Heisman and Chuck Bednarik.
But despite Penn’s long and distinguished sports history, few of its teams have claimed an NCAA championship trophy of its own.
In fact, the men’s and women’s fencing squads are two of only three teams that can point to a national title as proof of their long-standing excellence.
One reason for the teams’ historical success has been coaching stability. Depending on whom you ask, there has been a fencing team at Penn for 112 years. In that span, the program has had only four head coaches.
Current head man Andy Ma, who became the fourth coach before the 2009-2010 season and leads both the men’s and women’s teams, recognizes the tendency of long tenures in the program.
“I’m honored to be here. I’m the fourth coach ever and all three [before me] served as head coach for more than  years.
“I will try my best to carry on the history — and stay as long as I can,” he added with a laugh.
Ma took over for the legendary Dave Micahnik, under whom he served two stints as assistant coach — first from 1994-96 and then from 2005-06. Micahnik, who led the men’s and women’s teams to a combined 722-210 record from 1973-2009, recalled from his early years how his teams would “steal a few first-round matches” from simple things like getting a good warmup.
Coaching was not Micahnik’s first introduction to Penn’s fencing program, however. He fenced for the Quakers from 1955-59 and went on to represent the United States in epee at the Olympic Games in 1960, 1964 and 1968. He won the U.S. National Championship in 1960.
This type of individual success has been a hallmark of Penn fencing. The men’s program boasts 14 individual NCAA champions, 113 NCAA All-Americans, 130 first-team All-Ivy selections and 11 Olympians.
Add to that 16 Ivy League titles and three NCAA championships in 1953, 1969 and 1981, and it’s easy to see why tradition is one of the program’s greatest draws.
The 1953 title team was helmed by the late “Maestro” Lajos Csiszar. Considered Europe’s finest fencer when he emigrated from Hungary in 1948, he led the program for 26 years until his retirement in 1974.
Current junior sabre Evan Prochniak recognizes the part that history plays in the minds of this year’s team.
“I think a lot of us feel just lucky to be a part of the program,” he said. “It’s cool how you can go downstairs and see all the history.”
Ma echoed these sentiments and noted the benefits the program gains from its past success.
“Kids know the history,” he said. “They feel honored to be here.”
While the men’s success dates back more than 100 years, the women’s is more recent. Founded by Micahnik as a “test sport” in 1973, the team earned varsity status by 1976 and finished second at nationals one year later.
Nine years after that, Penn had arguably its most dominant team of all-time in either gender, as the women claimed the 1986 NCAA championship. Micahnik spoke of how he would often tell the women to “go fence and bring me the score sheet when you’re done, and go coach the men.
“It’s not that I didn’t care about them,” he added. “I just trusted them completely.”
While the women’s squad has its own rich history — including one individual NCAA champion, 33 NCAA All-Americans, 37 first-team All-Ivy picks and 10 Ivy League team titles — it can still look to the men’s 100-plus years of success to light its fire.
Freshman Sarah Paramacek, whose grandfather, Robert Paramacek, was a member of the 1953 championship team and won Penn’s first individual NCAA title in sabre the same year, said, “We’re just as happy if the guys win as [if] we do, but we can use that to motivate ourselves and try to keep up with them.”
In spite of the proud winning tradition, no members of the current team are willing to rest on their laurels or look ahead to the day when they will be a part of the history.
“I feel like I need to win an NCAA championship to be down [on the wall],” Prochniak said. “Those guys did so much in their careers.
“I only hope I can do as much as they did.”
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