Fencing: Cats continue strong start at Penn State

Matt Forman

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Just a week after her twin sister Christa finished third at the Junior North American Cup in Dallas, Texas, sophomore Kayley French placed second at the Penn State Open over the weekend. Kayley dominated throughout the day before running into Penn State’s Jessica Anasta Ferdman in the epee final. A little friendly competition between sisters never hurts, Kayley said.

“We’ve always had friendly competition between us,” said Kayley. “And it’s always off and on between us for who wins, and it’s definitely a positive thing. We have a good support system for each other not only fencing but also with schoolwork.”

The Penn State Open was not affiliated with the United States Fencing Association, and therefore fencers could not earn points for their national ranking. Instead, it was simply a collegiate event fencing against the top schools from around the country.

Northwestern coach Laurie Schiller said he feels the weekend was a success.

“Most of the top schools in the country were there, including Ohio State, Wayne State, Penn State, Penn, Harvard and Yale,” Schiller said. “The only strong teams that weren’t there were St. John’s and Columbia, and we were able to have a strong weekend. The level we are fencing right now is just fine.”

And while last weekend’s performance, with five fencers finishing in the top 32 of their respective weapons, this weekend looks even better on paper. Six fencers reached the field of 32, three in each foil and epee.

Other than Kayley French, sophomore Christa French finished eighth and junior Megan Ross finished in the top 16 in epee. For Ross, starting the season well was extremely important after going 19-25 a season ago following up a 36-29 freshman campaign.

The Cats also had three top finishers in foil, led by junior Sam Nemecek. Nemecek, who posted a 121-19 record a season ago and is arguably one of the nation’s top fencers, finished fourth at the Penn State Open. Filling in behind Nemecek were sophomore Karolyn Szot and senior Natalie Wang, who both reached the field of 16.

Nemecek went 20-4 against ranked opponents last year en route to earning her second consecutive second-team All America and first team All-Midwest Fencing Conference honors. Most importantly, though, is that Nemecek knows the importance of a getting off to a fast start, something she accomplished last year by going 33-1 early in the season.

“Every time I go out there it’s always to win,” she said. “I have a goal and I know what it is, and nothing is going to stand in my way of how I achieve that. That’s something I’m working toward early in the season.”

Individual achievement has marked Nemecek’s NU career: She is the only NU fencer to top the 100-win plateau for consecutive seasons. However, Nemecek stressed the concept of team unity.

“Frankly, I think all of us upperclassmen are incredibly impressed with all of the underclassmen,” she said. ” It was awesome how everyone pulled together this weekend, even thought it was an individual tournament. I can tell the team is going to be really strong together this year.”

NU is off for Thanksgiving, but will return to action on Friday, Dec. 7, at the Illinois Junior Olympic Qualifying event. The Cats go on a long break without live fencing action, but Schiller said he knows the Cats will be fine.

“In effect we’re done for most of the fall here, and of course there will be an impact because they have break,” he said. “It’s just something that happens, but we lay out a program that they’ll get done, and we’ll bring the girls back a few days early and we’ll get right back into it, no worries.”

Ultimately the Cats have been nothing but impressive early on, a trend that, in the eyes of Schiller, should continue the remainder of the season.

“Overall we’ve had a very good fall. I’m looking forward to going against better teams, but ultimately nobody scares me,” Schiller said. “I think we’re as good as anybody. Our goal is not only to win the conference championship, but also to be the best women’s team in the United States.”

Reach Matt Forman at matthewforman2007@u.northwestern.edu.