As expected, it was a strong finish to a strong season.
This past Sunday, Penn fencing closed out its season with an impressive showing at the NCAA National Championships, hosted at Penn State. The Quakers recorded an eighth-place finish, with Penn tallying 101 points from the 10 fencers sent to State College, Pa.
“Overall, it was a pretty decent [showing],” coach Randall LeMaster said. "We got five All-American selections, four honorable mention All-Americans, and one second team All-American.”
10 fencers, 10 All-American distinctions.
The women competed on Thursday and Friday, while the men competed during the weekend. The national tournament consisted of five rounds of five-touch bouts, where the top four fencers in each weapon class moved into a fifteen-touch knockout bracket for individual titles. Notre Dame won its 10th title with a full team of 12 fencers. Penn finished behind two Ivy rivals: second-place finisher Columbia and fifth place finisher Harvard.
On the women’s side, the Quakers were led by a top-10 finish by sophomore foil Nicole Vaiani, who won 14 of her 23 bouts to finish ninth. Mid-Atlantic regional foil champion freshman Nicole Wong made it two top-15 finishes in foil, finishing 11th with only two less wins then her teammate. Senior epee Stephanie Wolf closed out her Penn career with a top-15 finish after qualifying for her first NCAAs.
For the Ivy-champion men’s team, sophomore Willie Upbin recorded Penn’s highest result with a sixth-place finish in men’s foil. Freshman Michael Li also finished top-10 in the foil event, finishing ninth. Junior Justin Yoo also recorded a top-10 finish, finishing ninth in men’s epee.
LeMaster remarked on what the experience of competing at nationals did for Upbin’s confidence.
“Willie came in with a real relaxed attitude; he was comfortable,” Penn’s director of fencing operations said. “I think that’s really the best mindset to approach this type of pressure induced environment. Because of that, he went out and fenced well against extremely tough competition”
While Penn also finished eighth in 2017, a season in which the Quakers also shared the men’s Ivy title with two teams, this year’s top-10 finish feels different.
For LeMaster, what is most encouraging about Penn’s finish to the season is the prospect for even greater heights in future seasons. A majority of the Quakers that finished in the top 15 in their events are underclassmen, which means that Penn will continue to have strong fencers in future seasons. As Penn’s underclassmen gain experience, it will help future experiences at nationals.
Because, as LeMaster stressed, at nationals, the margin for error is minuscule at best.
“You’re talking about the best collegiate fencers in the United States all grouped together. If you’re just a little bit off it can affect [your result],” LeMaster said. “An example would be Justin Yoo, [who] finished second last year. Justin didn’t get off to a great start; he finished strong, but he ended up ninth."
At the nationals, the separation among the best fencers are just that thin.
Which is why LeMaster praised Penn’s consistent placers of fencers in the top 15. He pointed out that recruits will want to fence for the Red and Blue alongside teammates that compete well against the best in the collegiate fencing.
And as Penn looks back on a season where the stats from this season mirror the last one, what differentiates this season is the assurance that as the Quakers look forward, they can reach even more success.