It was a scene straight out of High Noon. Geoffrey Russell of Penn State and Ben Atkins of Columbia University stood facing each other at the Angela Athletic Facility on the St. Mary's College campus in South Bend. After four days and 88 fiercely contested matches, the NCAA fencing championship had come down to this, the eighth bout of the gold-medal match in the team èpèe competition. With Penn State leading four bouts to three in the best-of-nine match. Russell needed just five touches to give the Nittany Lions the èpèe title—and with it the overall team championship.
The few dozen spectators who were seated along the edge of Strip 2 in the small gym waited expectantly, knowing they might soon witness a changing of the en garde in collegiate fencing. Columbia, winner of the last three men's NCAA team titles, had gone to South Bend hoping to equal both Wayne State's record of four consecutive titles and NYU's alltime total of 12. Penn State had never won the overall championship, though it finished second last year.
Entering the gold-medal èpèe match, Columbia led the tournament by two points. But since 12 points would be awarded to the first-place team and nine to the runner-up, that margin meant nothing. The team that won èpèe would be the NCAA champion.
"In èpèe, anything can happen," said Columbia assistant coach Joel Glucksman. Indeed, fencers call it the most dramatic and least forgiving of their sport's three events. In èpèe, the whole body is the target, unlike saber, where it's any place above the waist, and foil, where only the torso can be hit for points. And in èpèe there are few constraints on style.
April 8, 1990
"It is cut-and-dried—pure fencing," said Penn State head coach Emmanuil Kaidanov, an emigrant from the U.S.S.R. "Whoever touches first wins the point." In the final bout, Russell, a 6'2" redheaded sophomore from Venice, Calif., touched first—five consecutive times. Against the smaller Atkins, Russell was able to wait, feint and then make the thrusts he wanted. He won 5-0, giving Penn State the 12 points and the overall title with 36 points, to 35 for Columbia and 30 for third-place Notre Dame, the host school. No sooner did Russell pull off his mask than he found himself in the embrace of his cheering teammates.
"Bravo!" said Kaidanov.
It was a fitting climax to an uncommonly exciting meet. For the first time in 24 years, the NCAA championship was a true team competition. Previously, fencers competed as individuals, scoring points for their schools based on their placings in the three weapons. Under the old format, a school could win the men's team title with just three fencers. Women, who compete in foil only, had a separate championship. This year, in a switch that has put the NCAA format closer to that of international competition, three-member teams vied in each of the men's events. What's more, in a change prompted by dwindling participation in collegiate fencing—which threatened its status as a full-fledged NCAA sport—men's and women's team scores were combined to produce a single overall champion. There were still individual championships in all weapons, but they were now entirely separate from the team competition.
The new format was well received by the 184 fencers, and their coaches, assembled in South Bend. "Before, the winner was whoever had the three best fencers," said Michel Sebastiani, the Princeton coach. "Now, that is not enough. Now, you must have depth—across the board."
Mike DeCicco, who has been Notre Dame's coach for 29 years, was even more enthusiastic. After his èpèe squad lost its third-round match to the University of Pennsylvania, and with it any chance for the overall title, DeCicco was nonetheless able to say, "There! That's why I love this format. It's like the Final Four in basketball. Fencing may never challenge those guys for TV exposure, but at least now we have the same format—the same kind of excitement."
From the start, Columbia and Penn State were so closely matched that barely a blade separated them. Penn won the team saber, with the New York Lions whipping the Nittany Lions in a head-to-head match for third.
Meanwhile, in the women's foil, Penn State, led by sophomore Katie Kowalski, was fighting its way to an unexpected third-place finish behind perennial champion Wayne State, which had a squad of European-born, scholarship-supported fencers, and second-place Notre Dame. Columbia, despite the presence of the unflappable Tzu Moy, finished fifth. Moy won the women's individual title with an 18-0 record and was 13-2 in her team bouts.
"The women's performance was very important for us, very good," said Kaidanov, who came to the U.S. 11 years ago from Riga, Latvia. Since taking over at Penn State in 1982, he has built the Nittany Lions' program into one of the strongest in the country. Because he has little scholarship money available to him (only 2½ full scholarships for the entire team), Kaidanov has learned to concentrate on teamwork and on developing new fencers. One member of his èpèe squad, graduate student Lou Kun, first learned the sport in a freshman gym class.
"The experienced ones help the new ones," says Kaidanov. "It is like having other coaches."
One of the experienced Nittany Lions is junior Ed Mufel, who finished runner-up in individual foil after winning the event in '89. Mufel, 22, began competing when he was 11 in his native Kazakhstan, a republic of the Soviet Union. But by the time he came to the U.S., in 1984, years of rigorous training had left him disenchanted with the sport.
"I wanted to quit fencing long ago," says Mufel, who with his curly hair and aristocratic features looks as though he should be engaging in swordplay alongside D'Artagnan, Aramis, Porthos and Athos. "But I needed to pay for college. Then when I got to Penn State, I began to enjoy it again."
In South Bend, Mufel led Penn State in the team foil competition, winning six of eight preliminary bouts to put the school in the gold-medal round against Columbia. Though Columbia won the foil title, 5-4, Penn State's second-place points kept the Nittany Lions in the hunt and set up the next day's èpèe showdown.
"They were exhausted," said Kaidanov of his fencers on the final day. "But they fought their very best fight. They fought as a team."
In Penn State's moment of victory one thing was missing—half the team. The women and the men's saber squad had already left for the airport. "The university could not afford for them to stay another night," said Kaidanov with a smile and a shrug. But any disappointment the airborne fencers may have felt was overcome with a quick thrust of teamwork.
"Right after the awards ceremony we called some friends back in State College and arranged to have them meet the plane," said senior foil fencer Steve Gold. "They had champagne and a banner that read WELCOME HOME, NCAA CHAMPS when the teams arrived."
A moment later, after posing for one more victory photo, Gold turned to Kun and Mufel. "You know what?" he said. "Those guys better do the same for us when we get back."