Penn fencing coach Andy Ma has a bit of Herm Edwards in him.
Like the legendary coach of the New York Jets, Ma’s emphasis is on the results.
“Our goal is to try to win both [Ivy Championships],” Ma said.
This year, that goal is very much in reach. With only a week and a half until championship weekend, both the men and the women fencers are confident they can pull off the double.
“I think the kids are more confident than the coaches,” Ma said, laughing. “Everything could happen, so we have to be ready for that day – that moment. So we prepare everything we know, about our experience, about our knowledge, about our best shot, so we are prepared.”
While Ma acknowledges that the Ivy League has improved overall, there are plenty of indications that the gaps between the top four teams in the conference have shrunk even further.
On the men’s side, the gap was already small to begin with: Penn, Columbia, and Princeton have split the title in thirds for two straight years. This year, Harvard joins the other three in the national rankings, with all four teams ranked in the top ten.
Penn has already lost to Columbia once this season, dropping a narrow 14-13 decision with a single touch making the difference.
Penn’s men return all but one of the fencers that competed in last year’s championship and have gained valuable reinforcements from the freshman class. The roster has no obvious weaknesses – that is, if they can stay healthy. Both junior epee Justin Yoo and sophomore saber Connor Mills have missed time, and multiple Penn fencers have come down with the flu in recent weeks.
“Other teams, we cannot control. The referee, we cannot control. The other side, the fencers, the cheering, their coaches, we cannot control. We can only do our part,” Ma said.
Ma tabbed Yoo, Mills, and fellow captain senior foil John Vaiani as all having good chances for an individual championship if they perform at their best in the moment.
That was a recurring refrain from Ma. With the national rankings as tight as they are in the Ivy League, the title rests on how each team performs on that day. Unlike last year however, Penn won’t have the advantage of a home crowd; the round-robin tournament will be hosted by rival Princeton.
The women face a bit more of an uphill battle after placing third last season. The team suffered a tight loss to Princeton that would have forced a three-way tie had they won. Like the for the men’s team, the women’s rankings feature the same four Ivies in the national top ten: Columbia, Princeton, Harvard, and Penn – in that order. Ma admitted that there is a bit more of a gap on the women’s side, but the parity within the top four is small enough for any – or all – of them to come out on top.
“In a five-touch bout, you never know,” Ma said. “On paper, it could be the other three teams – both men and women – better than us, but last year we shared the title and the women beat Harvard and almost beat Princeton … So both the men and the women have a chance but we have to do right at that day, at that moment.”
“We can only do our part. If the other team do super, we cannot control [that]. So we try to [have a] high performance on that day, and hopefully the other teams have a bad day. We all have a chance,” Ma said.
With the margin of error so low and parity at the top so high, the only thing on Ma’s mind are the results. After all, ‘you play to win the game.'
With a 19-6 overall record, the women’s squad has been bolstered by strong overall performances from both the team’s veterans and younger members. Specifically look for the women’s epee squad to play a key role for the Quakers, balanced by veteran leadership from senior Stephanie Wolf, and strong showings from the freshmen Jenny Ko and Emma Harris.
The men’s squad, two-time defending Ivy champions, is looking as strong as in their past two seasons. This year, the goal is for the squad to claim sole ownership of the Ivy title. The Quakers will look to strong leadership from sophomore saber captain Connor Mills to go along with the stellar expectations set for 2017 NCAA individual top-10 finishers, Justin Yoo and John Vaiani.
With an already talented group bonded by one another’s passion to do well for the Red and Blue, Penn fencing is primed to bring in one of the best seasons of all the sports in Penn’s athletic program.
And come Feb. 11, it wouldn’t be too surprising if they need to bring out the brooms.