March Madness doesn’t have to stop on the basketball court.
Although the Quakers bowed out in the first round of this year's NCAA Men's Basketball tournament, potential for success at a national playoff may just be found on the fencing strip. From Thursday through Sunday, Penn fencing looks to close out its impressive season at the 2018 National Collegiate Fencing Championships.
Among the field of 144 fencers, the Red and Blue qualified ten fencers to compete at the national fencing championships, to be hosted at Penn State, matching. Nine of Penn’s spots were guaranteed through results obtained at the NCAA 2018 Mid-Atlantic Regional Fencing Championships. Penn’s tenth fencer, junior sabre Julian Merchant, earned an at-large bid, which is granted based on both a fencer’s regional performance and his or her performance throughout the season.
Overall, the Quakers are one of six teams to have at least ten total fencers at the meet.
The No. 6 Ivy champion men’s squad will have six fencers represent the Red and Blue at Penn State. While contenders like junior epee Justin Yoo and senior foil John Vaiani will return to the national stage, for freshman foil Michael Li, a trip to nationals is a first.
The freshman accomplished his season-long goal thanks to a fourth-place regional finish in men’s foil. For Li, his improvements have been made with an eye toward the ultimate goal: making NCAAs.
“For me, the only significance [of Regionals] was to make NCAAs, and that’s my goal this season, was to make NCAA’s,” the Palo Alto, Calif. resident said. “I’ve definitely improved upon on my patience, just not getting angry with my stupid mistakes, just being calm."
Li exemplifies the impressive freshman class that has underlined the Quakers’ season. Sean Wilson, who finished runner-up in the men’s regional epee competition, will also travel to nationals for the men’s epee. Penn’s freshman class has delivered in place of a strong class of 2017, allowing the Quakers to retain their Ivy title and send ten of the maximum twelve fencers to nationals.
However, while more freshmen make up the men’s squad at nationals, the No. 7 women’s squad, which already started competition on Thursday, has equally bright hopes for the future.
Freshman Nicole Wong will be the only freshman representing the women at nationals, but her regionals performance was the most impressive among all season long for the Quakers. The freshman from Singapore won the women’s regional foil competition.
“It was my first regionals; it was really a lot of bouts, and I was not used to it, so by the end I was a bit tired,” she said. “To be honest, I was just focusing on my own bout. I ended up winning regionals, but, to be honest, I didn’t even know I won.”
Wong led a total of four women to qualify for Nationals. Three veteran Quakers help complete the lineup: sophomore foil Nicole Vaiani, senior sabre Arabella Uhry, and senior epee Stephanie Wolf.
For Wong, the key to her preparation comes down to focusing on maintaining form, not results.
“For me personally, I don’t think it’s about trying anything new now. I think we all know what we’re best at,” Wong said. “I think it’s about sharpening our skills throughout the tournament, to be ready, to be confident. I don’t feel any pressure; it’s my first time and I’m excited to see how we do, as team.”
No pressure. That’s what defines the younger members of Penn fencing. With no results from previous years to gauge their expectations, their focus is purely on the fencing. And it shows.
Sure enough, at the end of Thursday's competition, Wong stands in seventh place in women's epee. Overall, the Red and Blue are in eighth place nationally entering Day 2 of competition.
With a strong senior class departing after the end of this year’s NCAA Championships, the Quakers are depending on their younger members to deliver not just at NCAAs, but in future seasons. After strong team performances, Nationals provides an opportunity for Wong and Li to close out their rookie seasons with an emphatic stamp.
Because there’s no better way to make that first big statement than in front of the best in the country.
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