On Sunday afternoon, after four days of competition, the NCAA fencing tournament came down to one last deciding round of bouts. Princeton was neck-and-neck with St. John’s, fighting for a spot in the top three.
“We knew that Ohio State and Columbia were already out of reach, but we knew we could beat the other two teams,” coach Zoltan Dudas said.
Cheering teammates were running back and forth across the room. The women, who had finished fencing a few days before, were particularly loud. Junior Alex House had finished his bouts in épée, but couldn’t bring himself to watch. He knew the tournament came down to those final minutes— he was too nervous.
Dudas doesn’t like boiling an entire NCAA tournament down to one bout. “It’s not so much about counting the touches or counting the bouts. I don’t like to put the pressure on the last bout. The first bout has the same value on the last bout,” Dudas said.
Still, the atmosphere in the room was exciting. “It was very unique in that very decisive events happened simultaneously. It was really overwhelming and it was hard to follow exactly what was going on,” Dudas said.
In foil, Thomas Dudey ’18 had been fencing head-to-head against Michele Caporizzi of St. John’s.
Dudey won the bout by one touch in 5-4, a win which would bring Princeton to a tie against St. John’s. Princeton broke the tie with the higher team indicator. (Essentially, the Tigers’ margin of victory in each bout was greater than those for the Red Storm.).
Princeton left the NCAA tournament with a bronze trophy. It was the sixth year in a row that Princeton placed in the top four.
At the end of the tournament, Princeton came away with eight All-Americans.
House said that the team wasn’t satisfied with third place, but was proud of the performance nonetheless. “We wanted to win. But we were all proud we could hold our own. Finishing above St John’s and Notre Dame is something we were proud of,” he said.
Dudas attributes the team’s success to the Olympic-caliber athletes competing for the Tigers. “Some of the athletes are trying to qualify for Olympic teams. If the majority of the team is trying to aim very high, the shift is that high performance becomes the norm of the team,” Dudas said. “Everyone is pulled to a higher level of competition.”
Nearly all of the fencers have competed at a national level, and it is common practice for athletes to take time off to try to qualify for the Olympics. Katharine Holmes, who has taken two years off from Princeton and will return as a member of the Class of 2017, qualified for the Rio Olympics in épée.
Due to the depth of his team, Dudas doesn’t maintain a consistent starting lineup, instead choosing to rotate fencers throughout the season. “Those who are in the second string are equally able to perform,” Dudas said. At the same time, Dudas hopes to expand his team’s small roster somewhat in future years to create a little more cushion for injured athletes.
House believes that the small size of the team if part of the reason for its dominance on the national stage. “[The small size of the team] puts a lot of pressure on us, but it also makes it a very tight-knit team,” House said, adding that Princeton’s team seems much more supportive than others. “I think we have a great environment to support each other and bring out the best in each other. Other teams seem to have more inner tensions than we do.”
When it comes to coaching philosophy, Dudas is hands-off at the tournaments. “He puts in a lot of work preparing us at practice, but he also believes in us and our ability enough to not try and mess with us when we’re competing,” House said of his coach. “He understands that we’re his students, but we’re also experienced competitors. That makes us take responsibility for ourselves and for the results.”
At the end of the tournament, Princeton came away with eight All-Americans. On the men’s side, Edward Chin ’18 took third and Peter Pak ’17 took seventh in saber; Thomas Dudey ’18 finished ninth in foil; Alex House ’17 took fifth in épée. On the women’s side, Gracie Stone ’16 took second in saber and Charlene Liu ’19 took second in épée. Ashley Tsue ’17 finished ninth in foil and Isabel Ford ’16 finished 11th in épée.