After Michael Mills methodically smoked Penn State’s Shaul Gordon in the final round of the NCAA tournament Friday, he checked his phone.
Congratulatory text messages awaited. At the culmination of a spectacular season in which the junior recorded just five losses, Mills emerged the best sabre fencer in American collegiate fencing.
“They were all going crazy on the phones,” Mills said. “They were all just really happy.”
Mills, the first Penn fencing champion since Cliff Bayer in 1997, won 88 percent of his matches this year, 16 percent more than fellow sabre and senior Evan Prochniak and 19 percent more than freshman epee Ayyub Ibrahim. The latter two both placed eighth nationally for their weapon Friday.
“[Michael] is the man,” assistant coach Randall LeMaster said. “He was just solid. Solid solid solid. He was spectacular. Footwork was crisp. He had a job to do, and he just went to it.”Mills went undefeated in round robins in the first round before battling through a close semifinal against Penn State rival Adrian Bak.
Bak, who Mills has fenced against since high school, took the lead, 14-12. One bout away from elimination, Mills chose an aggressive approach, aiming away from the middle.
“I knew I had to do a more risky action,” Mills said. “We both know each other really well, and that definitely plays a roll in what you do. It’s almost like rock paper scissors shoot … If you know each other, it just makes it that much more complicated.”
Mills faced Gordon — his final round opponent — just once, earlier this year. Using a strategy that he decided upon with Prochniak and head coach Andy Ma, Mills defeated his Nittany Lions opponent handily, 15-9.
“We knew he was big on counterattacks … so I just jumped on him from the start, and made sure he didn’t get any momentum,” Mills said.
Mills, Prochniak and sophomores Steven Yang and Sean Turner won the sabre squad championships last month.
For Prochniak, placing eighth and second-team All-American this weekend was the last moment of his NCAA career.
For Ibrahim — a high school and freshman phenom who has so far lived up to the high expectations — his eighth-place finish marks just the quarter mark to his career.
Sophomore Luona Wang of the women’s team also had a successful tournament, placing fifth in women’s foil despite an injury that has affected her all season.
“For her to finish fifth shows the amazing heart that she has,” LeMaster said.
Junior Gabby Foor and senior Amrit Bhinder had less successful tournaments. Bhinder placed 19th and Foor 22nd.
Sunday, Mills expressed confidence that both men’s and women’s teams would be successful next season as well as sadness that Prochniak will be graduating.
“I think I’m really going to miss him,” Mills said.
Penn’s fencing season was in most ways successful. However, the men’s second-place finish at the Ivy League Round-Robins Championship came as a disappointment to the team, which was extremely close to winning league championships for the first time in Ma’s tenure.
LeMaster, after the NCAAs, was proud to have a victor on his team.
“He is the 2013 NCAA national sabre champion.”