The end of an era isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Penn men’s fencing, which has won three consecutive Ivy League titles and is currently No. 4 in the nation, will soon be losing senior epee captain Justin Yoo. During his freshman year, Yoo helped Penn reach its first ever No. 1 national ranking.
The California native will postpone his graduation by three semesters and skip the upcoming college season in order to train and attempt to make the American squad for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
The obvious question must be asked: Who is ready to step up to fill the void left by Yoo?
Coach Andy Ma sees potential in many members of different events to contribute more to the team.
“[Sophomore] Michael Li, in foil, is very good. He was on the cadet team, so he will try to make it on the junior team; he has the potential to be a future Olympian,” Ma said. “Men’s sabre, I think Julian Merchant, even though he is a senior, has a lot of potential to have a great year. Men’s epee, besides Justin Yoo, has depth through [sophomore] Sean Wilson and [freshman] Emon Daroian.”
How do some of these fencers match up?
Li, a fencer in the foil category, had an impressive rookie season last year. He earned an All-American honorable mention with a ninth place finish at the NCAA Championships. He also placed fourth in the NCAA Regionals, and finished his debut year with 44 wins.
The left-handed Palo Alto native, previously also a Junior Olympic Fencing champion and No. 2 foil fencer as a cadet, had a few words to say about the team stepping up.
“I think we all just need to work together and try to be better; better as a team, not just individually,” Li said. “We need to try to grow as fencers and as teammates and be better as a whole, not just have ‘one face’.”
Li is currently 7-3 this season, with three of his wins coming from a clean sweep against Ohio State.
Senior sabre Julian Merchant has helped the Red and Blue win three straight Ivy League Championships. Last season, he placed 23rd at the NCAA Championships after getting an at-large bid. In last year's Ivy League Championships, he went 11-4, and as a result, was a first team All-Ivy selection. Merchant also hit a big milestone when he earned his 100th career win at the Penn State Invitational against Haverford.
The senior is 5-6 so far this year, with tight 2-1 winning bouts over Ohio State and Penn State.
Last year, the Quakers had a weaker sabre squad compared to their epee and foil teams. Penn dropped a lot of points in the sabre section, and consequently lost some close matches due to lack of depth in that area.
Freshman sabre Steven Lin wants to change that.
After going 7-3 in the fall, the Guangzhou, China native, an All-American academic first-team in high school, is ready for the raised expectations.
“Definitely as the men’s team, our goal is to win Ivies this year,” Lin said. “And for sabre, I know last year we fell short compared to foil and epee, so I hope we get back this year and get some good results to contribute to the overall results of the team.”
The sabre squad already looks to be on its way to improvement, as Merchant and Lin finished third in their respective pools in the Penn State Invitational in early November this year.
Surely, the biggest void to be filled must be a cultural one after the departure of a team captain. When asked about filling in that gap through other leaders, Ma reinforced the importance of integrating the new generation, including multiple walk-ons, by not setting anything in stone.
“Our culture cannot be confined to two or three things, as the newer generation is always more modern and thinks differently compared to the current generation,” Ma said. “We are still building up culture. After Justin leaves, we will keep building our culture as even after winning Ivies, we are not completely perfect. We have good leadership that is evenly spread out, so hopefully we focus on the right things.”
Epee assistant coach Slava Danilov echoed Ma’s sentiment.
“Every year after the fall season, you go up and down in full steps; I hope this year, the freshmen help us go up,” he said.
That brings the focus to the epee squad, which will be vying to keeping its standards high in recreating its dominance from previous years.
Sophomore Sean Wilson has had a tough fall and closed out the semester with a 5-7 record, which included narrow losses against tough opposition like Ohio State, Penn State, and Notre Dame.
He had an impressive freshman season, placing 21st individually at the NCAA Championships and finishing the year with 41 wins. Wilson also won the gold medal in the epee category at the prestigious North American Cup held in Virginia Beach this January.
Freshman Emon Daroian, who was coincidentally the second seed at the North American Cup, seems to be the brightest prospect in the new recruiting class.
Although he only competed in one meet in the fall, a World Cup in Latvia, Daroian has raised his expectations for himself and his team.
“Even though I’ve only been to one tournament, I think I’ve been fencing decently, but I don’t know how I would’ve done in the ones I missed,” Daroian said. “The team as a whole did fine, but I think there is a lot of room for improvement. Come next semester, training and team bonding will be the key to getting better and attaining this improvement.”
Danilov reiterated his faith in the freshman and in his entire epee recruiting class.
“In my squad we have Emon Daroian; he can really show something, [both] in the national and international level,” Danilov said. “We have some talented kids who came this year. All we have to do now is work hard, and the results will come.”
Reassuringly for Penn, in the context of defending its Ivy League title, the Quakers seem to have no dearth of talented reinforcements for the departing Yoo. With fresh, motivated youth and the experience of returning star power, the upcoming fencing season will be an interesting one for the Red and Blue.
Once again brushing off the negative connotations of a void, Li emphasized the solid foundations of the team’s culture in pushing them through.
“I think we are all really supportive of each other. We love to cheer each other on, and although there is always room for improvement, and we can always do better, we know we are always there for each other.”
Correction: A previous version of this story reported that Yoo "is set to graduate a semester early". Yoo is actually postponing graduation until after the Olympics. The Daily Pennsylvanian regrets the error.