Nov. 30, 2012
QUEENS, N.Y. – After a 2011-12 season in which many of the best NCAA fencers took the year off from school to train for the Olympics, head coach Yury Gelman has re-tooled his roster to prepare for a run at the second NCAA title in program history. Last season, St. John’s finished fourth at the NCAA Championships, extending its streak of placing sixth or better to 20-straight seasons. The quest for title number two begins on Sunday, Dec. 2 with the first NCAA event of the season – the Brandeis Invitational in Waltham, Mass.
Following his fourth stint as U.S. Olympic fencing coach at the 2012 London Games, Gelman returns for his 18th season at the helm of the men’s and women’s fencing programs. In his time at St. John's, Gelman has won the only national title in program history (2001) and has produced 18 individual NCAA champions and more than 100 All-Americans.
"We have a very good and strong team this year," Gelman said. “I don’t know how strong other teams are yet, though. Last year, many teams lost fencers to the Olympics and now many of those fencers are back. Plus there are new recruits. I would say, however, that our team is definitely stronger than last year.”
The Red Storm fencing team welcomes back redshirt senior Daryl Homer, who placed sixth in men's individual saber as a member of Team USA at the London Games, and introduces freshman Race Imboden, a fellow American Olympian who finished ninth in men's individual foil.
Before taking the year off from NCAA competition last season, Homer had already established himself as one of the nation's top fencers. Entering the fall of 2011, the Bronx, N.Y., product had two individual NCAA titles, five gold medals in Pan American and NAC competitions, and was the No. 1 ranked men's saber fencer in the U.S. After his team-best sixth place in London, Homer was ranked No. 12 in the World, while maintaining his No. 1 U.S. ranking.
“Daryl is much calmer now after his Olympic experience. Psychologically, he believes in himself much more than before and that is most important. In his first North American Cup this season, he won gold easily and decided that he will only compete in World Cups from now on this year. He’s grown a lot as a fencer.”
“There will be new faces and new people coming up this year so across the board, I feel like I have to prove myself again,” Homer said. “Generally in fencing, you look up to the older veterans. It just happens that most of the people older than me retired so I’m one of the old guys on the scene now. Although I may have more experience than the fencers I’m competing against, they’re going to be very hungry when they’re competing with me and that’s normal. I just have to get to my level and compete – that’s pretty much it.”
Imboden, a fellow New York City native, was viewed as one of the nation's elite fencers before he had even attended a college class. Prior to committing to St. John's, the 19 year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., product was the No. 1 ranked men's foil fencer in the nation. Following his team-best ninth place finish in London, Imboden was ranked No. 9 in the World, while maintaining his No. 1 U.S. ranking.
"Race’s expectations were much higher than ninth place. He was sure he was going to win a medal. He’s a very young fencer and still considered a junior, but he put it in his head that he’s already there. The Olympics gave him an opportunity to rethink, work harder, and make things more realistic."
“Race is probably the most consistent fencer in America,” Homer – Imboden’s Olympic teammate said. “He’s extremely confident and the two of us should have a pretty good balancing act on each other. Race is also really strong-willed and a really strong athlete so he’ll be huge addition to our team.
The Red Storm squad also features multiple key returners and senior leaders. Senior and women's team captain Evgeniya Kirpicheva won the 2012 individual NCAA title for women's foil. The Russian-born foilist went 86-17 last year and has led the Red Storm in wins for the past two seasons. She is also a three-time First Team All-American as she collected a pair of bronze medals in her first two years at St. John’s.
“This is my last year in school and probably my last year of fencing,” Kirpicheva said. “I will try to win an individual title again, but I hope we win as a team because we have a great team this year. Winning as a team will be the biggest win.”
Kirpicheva’s classmate Irina Koroleva is also a three-time All-American. Last year, she finished with a career-high 66 win and placed ninth at the NCAA Championships. Both she and Kirpicheva are in position to become four-time All-Americans, which would be a remarkable feat considering there have only been seven four-time All-Americans at St. John's since 1995.
Freshman Marta Hausman and sophomore Melissa Corona (38-42 record last season) will begin the season competing for time at the C spot, but Gelman believes that Hausman – a member of the Polish junior national team – is talented enough to overtake the B position.
“Koroleva has a chance to qualify for the NCAA Championships, but now we have Hausman who is strong enough to qualify as well. It’s going to be a competition between those girls for qualification and always, when we have competition, it makes the girls stronger.”
With seven fencers, the men’s foil squad is the deepest on the team and according to Gelman, each member will have to fight for their time on the strip. Olympian Race Imboden is expected to begin the season as the A fencer, but the B and C spots are up for grabs.
Juniors Max Blitzer (14th place at 2012 NCAA Championships) and Eli Schenkel (9th place) will get the first crack at the B and C spots, but classmate Wilfred Curioso – the 2012 Northeast Regionals gold medalist – and freshman Michele Caporizzi – a member of the Italian Junior National Team – will receive opportunities as well. Juniors Zach Pepin and Daniel Goldfeder will add depth to the squad.
“Caporizzi is an extremely strong fencer. He’s very good technically and tactically. Assistant coach Tomer Or believes that Michele can be the number two fencer after Race.”
Blitzer, a Staten Island, N.Y. native who graduated from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, improved immensely from his freshman season. Blitzer doubled his wins total (33-29 as a freshman; 66-35 as a sophomore) and received his first-career NCAA berth. He has continued to show improvement entering the 2012-13 season as he has made a pair of top-16 finishes at the past two North American Cups he has fenced in. At the October NAC, he made a 10th place finish in a field that consisted of three members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic men's foil team.
Gelman believes that Blitzer will be the most improved St. John’s fencer this season.
“Blitzer has changed his club and coach and he works extremely hard,” Gelman said. “I see his result on a national level is already rising. He also fares very well in five-touch bouts. I think he will be the most improved this season for sure.”
Blitzer’s classmate Schenkel also enters the 2012-13 season much improved as he as collected a pair of top-25 finishes at the October and November NACs. Referred to as “consistent” by Gelman, the Los Angeles, Calif., product posted the highest winning percentage on the men's team last year (67-29 record, .698%) and made his first-career All-America team with a 9th place finish at the NCAA Championships.
Last season, women’s epee collected more individual wins (131) than any other St. John’s squad. By returning it’s A, B, and C fencers, women’s epee is shaping up to be even more formidable this season. Junior Alina Ferdman, who tied for the second-most wins on the Red Storm last season (79-25 record), figures to be the A fencer. The former Israeli Junior National Team member also placed sixth at the NCAA’s, which was the second-best finish by a St. John’s fencer.
Ferdman’s classmate Zsofia Fath also qualified for the NCAA Championships last season, but an injury she sustained during the competition held her back and resulted in a 19th place finish. Gelman believes she is capable of much more, which is evidenced by the bronze medal she earned at the 2012 Northeast Regionals.
Gelman also believes that sophomore Isis Washington, who posted a 51-23 record and won silver at the 2012 Northeast Regionals as a rookie, could also qualify for the one of the two spots in the NCAA Championships.
“Women’s epee is a very strong squad,” Gelman said. “I don’t know which two will actually qualify for the NCAA Championships. I really think Alina can be in the top-four, but I also expect a lot from Isis, who I think could a leader of the epee squad. Zsofia is a fighter and always shows a very good result because she is physically extremely strong.”
Freshman Situ Wang will add depth to the squad.
Men’s epee, on the other hand, is the only squad that doesn’t have an All-American. Senior Adam Watson compiled a career-best 50 wins during the 2011-12 season, but will be seeking his first NCAA berth in men's epee (he competed in foil at the NCAA Championships as a freshman). In the three previous seasons, two-time NCAA Champion Marat Israelian and three-time All-American Nicholas Vomero had occupied the two spots each school is allotted per weapon.
This season, Watson will be relied upon to anchor an inexperienced men's epee squad that consists of junior Andrew Dobbie (20-20 record last season) and freshman Trevor Shepard (86th place finish at the October NAC).
"Watson showed very good results last year and is doing well at North American Cups,” Gelman said. “He won bronze at the October NAC and placed 10th at the November NAC. He’s in the top-10 in the Senior Points list in the United States and he’s definitely improving. He’s a leader now and he knows we’re counting on him.”
German National Team member junior Anna Limbach headlines the women’s saber squad. Last season, Limbach lead the entire St. John’s team in winning percentage with a 79-15 record, won a bronze medal at the NCAA Championships, and won gold at the Northeast Regionals. Currently, she is ranked 16th in the World on the senior level.
“I don’t expect anything less from Anna than to finish in first or second place in the NCAA Championships,” Gelman said. “She is one of our stars.”
Limbach will be partnered with freshman Margaret McDonald, who has already proven to more than a capable B fencer. McDonald placed 16th at the October NAC and followed it up with an 11th place finish at the November NAC as well as a silver medal in the junior event.
Seniors Daryl Homer and Sean Buckley of men’s saber provide perhaps the best 1-2 punch on the St. John’s team according to Gelman. Last season, Buckley stepped up in the absence of saber partner Daryl Homer to lead the men's team in wins (71-32 record) and finish 10th at the NCAA Championships. As a freshman and sophomore, Buckley placed eighth at the NCAA Championships. Both he and Homer are seeking their fourth-straight appearances on an All-American team.
St. John’s begins the 2012-13 season on Sunday, Dec. 2 at the Brandeis Invitational in Waltham, Mass. The Red Storm will take on Brown, Boston College, Cornell, MIT, Yale, and host school Brandeis.
The Red Storm won’t compete again as a team until Saturday, Jan. 26 at its home event – the St. John’s Invitational. Five of the nation’s top programs, including 2012 NCAA Champion Ohio State, will make the trip to Queens, N.Y. Columbia, Harvard, Notre Dame, and Penn State will be the other visitors. The event will be broadcasted live on ESPN3.
St. John’s will hit the strip again the next day at the NYU Invitational in New York, N.Y. The Red Storm will compete against Columbia, Notre Dame, and Ohio State for the second-straight day and will also face Wayne State and host school NYU.
The regular season concludes on Saturday, Feb. 23 with the Temple Invitational in Philadelphia, Pa. St. John’s will take on Penn State for the third time this year and will also compete against Duke, Princeton, and host school Temple.
The Northeast Regionals – which is the qualification event for the NCAA Championships – will take place on Sunday, March 10. The venue is to be decided.
Finally, the NCAA Championships – a four-day event – begin on Thurs., March 21 and will take place in San Antonio, Texas.
Follow the St. John’s fencing team all year long on Twitter (@STJ_Fencing), using the hashtag: #stjfencing.