Season Recap: Fifth-Place Finish at NCAAs Puts Stamp on 2008-09 Fencing Campaign

Season Recap: Fifth-Place Finish at NCAAs Puts Stamp on 2008-09 Fencing Campaign

A fifth-place team finish and two individual runner-up finishes at the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Fencing Championships put an exclamation point on the 2008-09 season for the Harvard men’s and women’s fencing teams. Four Crimson players earned All-America status under head coach Peter Brand, while seven garnered All-Ivy honors.

The women finished third in the country with a 20-1 dual record, including their third Ivy League Championship within the last five years, while the men completed their season ranked seventh in the nation with a 9-9 overall mark.

The NCAA Championships
A pair of freshman, Caroline Vloka and Noam Mills, led Harvard to its top-5 placement at the NCAAs held at Penn State March 19-22. Mills grabbed second in the women’s epee, while Vloka lost in the championship match of the women’s sabre. Not to be outdone, senior co-captain Benjamin Ungar placed third in the men’s epee, while senior co-captain Emily Cross lost in the third-place match of the women’s foil. All four earned All-America honors for their efforts.

Mills, sporting a 21-2 record in the preliminary rounds, defeated Notre Dame’s Ewa Nelip in the semifinal bout, but came up short against Penn State’s Anastasia Ferdman, 15-9, in the championship. Vloka, meanwhile, carried a 20-3 record into the semifinal where she took care of Dagmara Wozniak of St. John’s, 15-11, before falling short against Duke’s Rebecca Ward, 15-4, in the final.

Ungar completed preliminary play at 15-8, but was upended by Slava Zingerman of Wayne State, 15-11, in the semifinal. Cross was 21-3 in the preliminary rounds, but the 2005 individual national champion ultimately fell short of the national title appearance by dropping a 8-7 decision to Doris Willette of Penn State in the semifinal. Other finishers at the NCAA Championships included: freshman Valentin Staller (15th, men’s sabre), freshman Shelby MacLeod (17th, women’s foil), senior Maria Larsson (17th, women’s epee), senior co-captain Kai Itameri-Kinter (20th, men’s foil), and junior Karl Harmenberg (23rd, men’s epee).

The Postseason
The women were riding high after sweeping their way to the Ivy Championship to open postseason play. No. 5 Harvard squeaked by Princeton, 14-13, and Columbia, 15-12, and defeated Yale, 18-9, and Cornell, 21-6, during the first round of the Ivy Championships Feb. 8 at Columbia. Two weeks later at Brown, Harvard sealed the deal with a pair of wins over Brown, 20-7, and Penn, 15-12. The No. 9 men finished 1-4 at the meet, defeating Brown, 21-6, along the way.

Mills posted a meet-best 17-1 record at the championships to earn All-Ivy first-team honors along with Cross and Vloka. Larsson was tabbed to the second team. On the men’s side, Staller and Ungar were named to the All-Ivy first team, while Harmenberg’s performance earned him second-team honors.

Harvard headed to the IFA Championships Feb. 28 at Brandeis, and the Crimson did not disappoint, taking third overall, including a second-place finish by the men and a fourth-place finish by the women. Individually, Ungar and Vloka took home titles in their respective weapons, while Larsson grabbed silver in the epee and junior Arielle Pensler earned the bronze in the foil. Sophomore Hao Meng took sixth in the foil and Staller was seventh in the sabre.

From there it was on to the NCAA Regionals March 8 at MIT, as the Crimson was looking to qualify the maximum number of 12 for the NCAA Championships. Harvard continued its strong play, as seven fencers placed in the top 3 in their respective weapons, led by Harmenberg and Mills, who took home gold in the epee, and Cross, who won the foil competition. Larsson made it a 1-2 finish for the Crimson behind Mills in the epee, and Staller finished second in the sabre. Rounding out Harvard’s outstanding play, Itameri-Kinter and MacLeod both took third in the foil. Vloka (fifth, sabre), Ungar (sixth, epee) and freshman James Hawrot (ninth, epee) all placed in the top 10.

The Regular Season
Harvard opened its 2008-09 season Nov. 2 at the Garret Penn State Open, where Vloka, competing in her first collegiate action, grabbed the title in the sabre. She was followed by MacLeod, who finished fourth in the foil, and Mills, who placed sixth in the epee. Harmenberg took sixth in the epee and Staller was ninth in the sabre.

The Crimson then competed in its only home meets of the season Nov. 21, as the men defeated Sacred Heart, 17-10, and the women took care of Tufts, 22-5, and the Pioneers, 23-4. Staller, Itameri-Kinter, Harmenberg and Hawrot each went 3-0 to lead the men. The foilers went a combined 18-0 in the two matches to lead the women’s team.

From there it was on to the second annual Beanpot Dec. 3 at Boston College. The women had a relatively easy time capturing their second title in as many seasons, defeating Boston College and Brandeis by 20-7 scores and MIT, 22-5. The men won a decisive victory over the Eagles, 20-7, while also taking care of the Engineers, 15-12. Harvard topped the Judges, 16-11, avenging last season’s loss in the Beanpot.

Little rest was awarded the teams, as the Vassar duals awaited the Crimson three days later, Dec. 6. The women continued their strong performance, defeating Vassar, 22-5, New York University, 21-6, Temple, 18-9, and Princeton, 17-10, while suffering what would be their only dual loss of the year to Penn State, 17-10. The men struggled, though, losing to Penn State, 18-9, dropping close contests to Princeton, 14-13, and NYU, 14-13, and pulling out a win over Vassar, 21-6.

The teams then took a month and a half to regroup and catch their breath before competing at St. John’s Jan. 24.  The women, ranked fifth in the first poll of the season, doubles up the Red Storm, 18-9, and secured a victory over No. 3 Ohio State, 15-12. Vloka went 6-0 on the day, while Cross and Larsson each posted 5-1 marks. The men, ranked seventh, fell to the No. 3 Buckeyes, 17-10, and the No. 9 Red Storm, 14-13. Ungar led the way with a 5-1 dual record.

Harvard wrapped up the regular season Feb. 1 at MIT, as both squads built momentum heading into the Ivy League Championships, Part I by posting 3-0 records. The men’s team defeated No. 10 Duke, 15-12, and Haverford, 16-11, and posted an easy win over Yeshiva, 25-2. On the women’s side, Harvard also defeated Yeshiva, 25-2, as well as Haverford, 21-6, and No. 10 Duke, 18-9. The women foilers went 26-1 overall, while the epee squad led the way for the men with a 21-6 record.

Looking Forward
Both teams will lose key fencers to graduation but will bring back a host of up-and-coming talent. The men will lose seniors Itameri-Kinter and Ungar, both former All-Americans, as well as Craig Gorin and Scott DiGiulio. Current Juniors Harmenberg, Christian Bjelland and Long Ouyang will step into the senior leadership role for 2009-10, while sophomores Meng, Nick Culbertson and Wesley Talcott and freshman Staller, Hawrot and Ivan Bochov will be counted on to provide stability in the lineup.

Cross, Larsson and fellow seniors Elizabeth Bast and Lisa Vastola will depart the Crimson lineup for next season, and juniors Artemisha Goldfeder, Anna Podolsky and Pensler will assume the senior positions. Yunsoo Kim will return as the only junior on the team, while freshmen Vloka, Mills, MacLeod, Hayley Levitt and Sarah Rosenberg-Wohl will each look to improve after their rookie campaigns.