Centerpiece_Yoo
Credit: Arabella Uhry

Five years.

That’s how long it has been since Penn fencing laid claim to a holder of an individual NCAA fencing title.

Specifically, it has been five years since 2014 graduate Michael Mills won the men’s sabre competition at the NCAA Fencing Championships. And, five years later, the next chance to carry out Mills’ legacy may be his own cousin.

“He was always a big inspiration,” sophomore sabre Connor Mills said. “He won states, so it was my goal to chase that. He won NCAAs and that’s currently my goal as well.” 

Suffice to say, Mills has drawn a lot of inspiration from his cousin.

The sophomore not only shares a surname with the 2013 NCAA Fencing men’s sabre champion, they also share the same weapon class. The two grew up training in the same club and shared a coach. If you ask the younger Mills, he’ll even go as far as to suggest that both cousins had body types better suited for football. 

Credit: Georgia Ray

While Mills was not present for his cousin’s NCAA title, he vividly remembers watching the final bout.

“I wasn’t there in person, but I was definitely watching it online,” the younger Mills reflected.  “There was all of us around the TV screen, watching him fence. Honestly it was really anticlimactic because he was ahead pretty much the entire time.”

Rather than just his connection to his cousin, it is the sophomore captain’s own work ethic that has defined his success and his potential. He is currently in the NROTC program, which often times can coincide with practices. Still, he has exhibited enough leadership off the strips to be elected men’s sabre captain during his sophomore season. 

And while success runs in the Mills family, if Connor Mills were to achieve an NCAA title in his collegiate career, the narrative behind it would stretch beyond the notion that he simply walked in his cousin’s footsteps.

The sophomore sabre captain is not the Quakers’ sole hope to capture the title. Among the other contenders to the five-year wait is junior epee Justin Yoo. 

The junior came the closest in recent memory to capturing an individual NCAA title, falling just short in last year’s title match to St. John’s then-junior Cooper Schumacher.

Credit: Georgia Ray

“Last year, I was very sad I got second; I came all that way just for nothing, that’s what it felt like,” Yoo reflected. “This year, it’d be very cool to win; of course, you can’t have like a goal like 'I’m going to win this competition' or else you’ll get very anxious about it.”

Instead, the junior epee focuses on tactical goals, hoping that improvements in his fencing can better prepare him for an NCAA title run. Specifically, Yoo noted how he needs to take more advantage of his physicality when facing opponents on the strip. As one of the fastest and strongest athletes in collegiate fencing, once Yoo unlocks his potential, an NCAA title would not be a surprise.

To hone his game, Yoo enters senior world cup events to compete against some of the world’s best fencers. He hopes to utilize these world cups to learn the tactics that senior fencers use so that he can put it all together on the collegiate stage.

When reflecting with coach Andy Ma, it becomes clear that there aren’t too many differences between Yoo’s story and that of Michael Mills.

“Michael used to be on the Cadet national team, so he was very capable,” Ma recalled. “He had some injuries, and then the first couple years, he felt he struggled. Finally, in 2013, he felt it and put everything together, academically, athletically, mentally and won.”

A highly touted phenom slowly building and overcoming obstacles to achieve a career highlight in his junior year — the story sounds very familiar. All that’s missing is the ending.

What makes the potential to have an NCAA individual champion even more exciting is the realization that rather than compartmentalizing team goals and individual goals, Yoo and his teammates can approach them as one in the same.

“The goals for the team and the goals for myself are very similar: if I do well, then my team will do well,” the 2017 NCAA men’s epee runner-up said. “I think that that’s the mentality everyone should have, and they do. In 2013, I don’t think [the 2013 team] had a stronger team than us.”

It was sixteen years between Michael Mills’ 2013 victory and the last Penn fencing individual NCAA title. With a revamped focus on training, it won’t be long until someone steps up to reclaim an NCAA title for Penn.

With the way things are trending, the may be just the start of greater things to come for Penn fencing.

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