Senior fencers head to NCAAs
Seniors enter final matches of careers after helping refocus the program
March 22, 2012, 12:18 am·
Laura Francis | DP
Braveheart doesn’t end when William Wallace loses a battle and is executed.
It ends when his memory inspires Robert the Bruce to fight and win Scottish independence.
Zane Grodman and Vidur Kapur — the active seniors on the Penn men’s fencing team — might be wise to remember that.
Though they did not win an Ivy title this year — nor any in coach Andy Ma’s three-year tenure — they helped the team come together during a tumultuous period, leaving Ma in excellent position for future seasons.
Saturday, the two will finish their careers with 23 bouts apiece in the NCAA Championships, including one against each other.
“It’s definitely a great way to end my career,” Kapur said. “I believe it’s going to be [the] last fencing competition of my life.”
For 35 years, Dave Micahnik coached both the men’s and women’s squads. The current seniors were his last recruiting class and, incidentally, his last Ivy title.
Penn fencing went undefeated in Micahnik’s final season four years ago. Grodman and Kapur still consider winning the Ivy title freshman year to be the best moment they ever experienced on the team.
“Many people didn’t think we had a shot at it,” Grodman remembered. “We just beat everybody’s expectation.”
That April, Micahnik announced his retirement. In July, Athletic Director Steve Bilsky announced Ma as his replacement.
Ma was replacing a legend and his transition could have been contentious.
However, Kapur describes his segue as long, but not difficult, and Grodman describes it as generally smooth.
“Mr. Ma took the pieces that were already here when Dave was here,” Grodman said.
Part of the credit for the peace during this period belongs to Ma. The coach is kind, loyal to his team and instantly likable.
As Grodman put it, “Mr. Ma is a coach that makes you want to win for him.”
However, much of it also goes to the now-seniors, who accepted their new coach.
“Without the senior leadership,” said assistant coach Randy LeMaster, whom Ma hired when he took over, “We wouldn’t have had the success that we’ve had so far.”
For Ma, one difficulty lay in moving from a private club to a college squad. He had to make the team work as a single unit. At least, according to LeMaster — who worked under Micahnik in a summer camp, but never actually at Penn — Ma took a more disciplined approach than his predecessor.
“The team dynamic became a big part of it,” Kapur remembered. “Getting people with college schedules to come in and work together as a team.”
The next two seasons were different renditions of the same play. During each, the squad went undefeated at the Philadelphia Invitational, then lost to powerhouse Penn State. At the Ivy Championships, they lost two matches. And the tournament.
Entering this year with only one of Micahnik’s recruiting classes, the Quakers were not expected to be particularly strong. But the freshmen helped exceed expectations.
And the team, more so than any of the last four years, bonded.
“[I was surprised by] team spirit,” Ma said.
“The team is probably the closest I’ve ever been on,” Grodman agreed.
As with the last two seasons, the Quaker men swept the Philadelphia Invitational. Then, in State College, junior Evan Prochniak closed out a 14-13 victory over the Nittany Lions. The Red and Blue were undefeated, and had beaten three teams in the top 10, including Duke twice.
“We entered this year believing it was a building year,” LeMaster said. “Halfway through the season, we knew we were contenders.”
The Penn men entered the Ivy Championships on Feb. 11 as a favorite to win. In the first match against Harvard, foils Kapur, Grodman and freshman Jason Chang all won their bouts. Penn was up, 6-3. But the Crimson came back during saber and epee rounds, winning the match, 14-13.
Mentally drained, they lost to Princeton, 19-8, and, more unexpectedly, to Brown. It was a crippling disappointment that likely bled into their 1-2 record two weeks later at the Temple Invitational.
Since then, the squad has had two tournaments, and fared well in both of them. Saturday, Kapur and Grodman will have a chance to become All-American athletes.
However, for Grodman at least, it is the team, rather than individual accomplishments, that he wants to remember.
“When we come back as alumni, hopefully we’ll see some Ivy titles, Ivy banners, some NCAA championships,” he said.
“Something to know that we were here at the beginning of the Ma era.”