Fencing: Northwestern, Lombard roll into huge weekend for program


Daily file photo by David Lee

A Northwestern fencer attacks an opponent. The Wildcats will face No. 1 Notre Dame among others this weekend.

Stephen Council, Reporter


Northwestern has changed and progressed since coach Zach Moss took the reins in 2016. This weekend could be the culmination of that growth.

The No. 2 Wildcats (27-1) will face 11 teams at the Northwestern Duals in Evanston this weekend, including No. 1 Notre Dame (23-2) and five other Top 10 programs. Senior epée Ella Lombard and her team are heading into the meet with an 11-match winning streak and a target on their backs.

After Lombard worked through the coaching transition and helped develop a new culture oriented around process and values, the team has jumped to a No. 2 national ranking this year, the highest in program history. Just as NU is hitting its stride, the team will face the toughest competition in the country — the top-ranked Fighting Irish.

Lombard, who has represented her peers within the informal leadership team for the last two seasons, said this year’s success isn’t surprising, but it is validating.

“It has been extraordinary to watch this team come as far as it has. It was already a great group when I came in,” she said. “But to see the progress that we’ve made as a team, in our results, in our process, in the consistency of our training, in the way that we treat each other, in the culture and the values that our program espouses, has been nothing short of miraculous.”

Lombard, a psychology and English major from Amherst, Massachusetts, started with the Cats in 2015. At the time, Moss was an assistant coach who knew Lombard as hungry, driven and thoroughly a team player. Since Moss took the head coach job in 2016, he said the current seniors on the team have been “all-stars” in terms of navigating the coaching change.

Moss said NU is one of few schools that makes recruiting decisions more focused on culture and fit than pre-college results. The programs that do so, he said, become greater than the sum of their parts.

He said that the best-ever program ranking, the great facility and the exciting meet this weekend are representative of the legacy the seniors are leaving behind. Lombard, among others, has been part of the driving force in the team’s cultural change, Moss said.

“She really exemplifies the culture of our program and sets a fantastic example that way, and does that especially for our epée squad,” Moss said. “I can’t say enough about how important that is.”

On the strip, Lombard broke out in January with a 16th place finish in the Div. 1 category at the North American Cup meet. She also took home gold in the senior team epée category, with teammates junior Pauline Hamilton and freshman Maggie Snider.

Lombard finished sixth in the NCAA Midwest Championships in 2017 but had less success the following season, not making it past the conference meet. Laughing, she said she is “in pursuit” of more breakout moments. She will likely try for a PhD in social psychology after graduation and said she would love to compete in individual national fencing competitions more often.

But for now, she has a team to work with. Snider, a fellow epée, said she loves Lombard’s optimism and passion. During practice, she said, Lombard takes control when the group falls behind and gets everyone back up to speed. The 11-person epée squad fences together every morning, Snider said, and the two even share a math class.

“If I feel like I need to talk to somebody about something, I usually talk to her,” Snider said. “She’s super supportive. If I look on the sideline and see her there, it’s a ray of optimism, for sure. It’s awesome.”

This weekend, Lombard and her teammates will be tested in bout after bout. The first strictly collegiate meet ever held in Ryan Fieldhouse, the two-day event is poised to have a serious impact on the next rankings. The Cats will face Notre Dame, No. 9 Penn, No. 10 Temple, Wayne State and Lawrence on Saturday. On Sunday, they’ll start against No. 8 Duke, before fencing Caltech, No. 6 Princeton, No. 5 Ohio State, Fairleigh Dickinson and Cleveland State.

Even though the Fighting Irish gave NU its only loss of the season in November, the match against Notre Dame on Saturday may determine the country’s top women’s program going forward. Little separated the schools in November, and the Cats’ epée squad came out on top 5-4 even though the team lost 16-11.

Lombard only has a few college meets left, and she said she’s trying to savor her last tough, rewarding winter. The team is riding a strong new culture into a massive weekend, and her leadership is part of the reason for that. Her biggest contribution, she said, has been buying in to the Moss’s vision for the team.

“I have always believed in what we’re trying to do here,” Lombard said. “I’ve believed that our coaches can take us there. And I’ve believed that if we stick to the culture and the process and the type of team that we want to be, that it’s going to work out.”

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