Third time’s still got that charm.
On Sunday, Penn men's fencing secured a share of its third consecutive title at the 2018 Ivy League Championships. Penn shares its 17th overall title with Harvard and Columbia, after the three teams recorded identical 4-1 records against the rest of the league.
On the women's side, Penn finished 3-3 overall, taking fourth place in the league as Columbia eventually won with an unblemished record.
The male Quakers travelled to Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium under the pressure of having to defend their title against an ever-improving men’s field, which was immediately reflected in their schedule. The Red and Blue faced only one opponent during the first day of the Round Robins: No. 1 Harvard.
“[Harvard's] men’s team this year was much tougher than the last two years; every team is getting better,” coach Andy Ma recalled. “[But] when you face stronger teams, you feel the challenge; you’re more motivated. We always like to face stronger teams.”
And with that motivation, No. 7 Penn overcame its first major challenge, taking down its eventual fellow co-champions 15-12 in their opening matchup. While the overall score tells the tale of a close encounter, what was remarkable is where the Quakers earned their points. The men were bolstered by an unbeaten 9-0 performance from their epee squad, consisting of Justin Yoo, Zsombor Garzo, and Jake Raynis. Yoo and Raynis each went 10-4 in their bouts, the best men’s epee performances throughout the entire league.
When asked how they handled facing such elite competition so early in the event, senior foil John Vaiani explained that when it comes to facing off against Ivy opponents, rankings never seem to faze the Quakers.
“It’s always extremely close, especially between the Ivy schools,” the veteran Quaker commented. “I think every fencer out there is a world-class fencer, so I think you have to trust yourself, and know that, no matter how close it is, you’re really taking it one touch at a time.”
Penn’s victory gave Harvard its only loss of the season. But despite the high of delivering on the first day, everyone knew that the fight had just begun.
The Quakers’ second day, highlighted by tough matchups against fellow defending co-champions No. 6 Princeton and No. 4 Columbia, proved to be just as close as the opening battle against the Crimson.
After taking down Yale, the Quakers faced a tough bout against the host Tigers. Tied up at 13-13 with one bout to decide the contest, sophomore foil Willie Upbin gave an incredible last-minute performance to gift Penn the win against Princeton, one that Vaiani was especially proud of.
“We lost to Princeton the last three years [at Ivies], so it was sort of our goal to beat them at home,” the senior foil said. “It was 4-4 between Willie and their fencer, [freshman] Sam Barmann. Willie just had a beautiful action, and completed the victory for us, and basically sealed the title right there for us.”
With all of his triumphs on the strip at the Ivy Championships, Vaiani named that moment as the best one he’s ever had at Ivies.
The Quakers exhibited one last final display of grit to grab their share of the title. After falling in a tight 15-12 contest to Columbia, the men, then 3-1, needed to win against Brown to join Columbia and Harvard atop the standings. Where they were left watching their title fate be decided by someone else last year, this time, the Red and Blue had control of their destiny.
Against Brown, they only lost four bouts. The title was Penn’s once more.
In reflecting on what has become a custom for Penn fencing, Vaiani, who played his last bout at the Ivy Championships Sunday reflects on a time when the men’s squad wasn’t this dominant.
“A lot of the kids on the team don’t know what it feels like to lose Ivies, but my freshman year we lost, and from personal experience, it’s the worst feeling in the world,” Vaiani recounted. “Winning it a third time feels just as good as the first time, because this isn’t something that is always going to happen; you are not entitled to win this championship.”
It is clear that Penn men’s fencing understands what each victory means for the legacy of its program, and the Quakers are more than wary not to overlook the successes that have defined them.
But for the time being, might as well get used to the throne, because it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.