Fencing: Moss has pushed elite Wildcats to next level


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

Fencing coach Zach Moss is in his third year at the helm for Northwestern. His Wildcats just won their second straight Midwest Fencing Conference championship

Stephen Council, Reporter


Laurie Schiller, Northwestern’s fencing coach of 38 years, retired in 2016. Over his tenure, he grew women’s fencing at NU from what he called “basically a club team” to a perennial top-10 power. When he left, he didn’t want the program to collapse behind him.

Good thing Zach Moss stepped in.

The transition was exemplary. Schiller’s program smoothly became Moss’s. Now, three years after Moss earned the job, NU just won its second straight Midwest Fencing Conference championship and secured a best-ever No. 2 national ranking from CollegeFencing360.com.

“You’re kinda like, ‘Ay yai yai, what’s gonna happen? Is this guy gonna be up to it when he takes over?’” Schiller said. “And I haven’t had a single regret.”

Assistant coach to the big chair

When Schiller looked for his replacement, he wanted to find someone who would understand the kind of program he’d built, he said. Along with winning, Schiller said his program focused on giving his fencers positive experiences and building up depth and strength over time.

Another key attribute for Schiller’s replacement was knowledge of the college system. With the taxing schedule for Division I athletes and recruits, as well as NU’s lofty academic requirements, Schiller said he was looking for someone who knew what it was like to be a smart fencer trying to get into college.

Moss, who Schiller knew through Moss’s father, fit that bill. Before NU, he coached for four years at St. Paul Academy and Summit School in Minnesota. But more importantly, he fenced at Duke, lettering four times and twice making the ACC Academic Honor Roll while working a 20-hour-a-week work study job.

“The Duke kids are smart kids,” Schiller said. “(They’re like) ’Let’s get home Coach, I got a paper to write.’ And that’s the kind of kid that goes to Duke, so Zach very much understands the level of the kids we need to be looking for and the kind of program.”

Schiller hired Moss as an assistant in 2014, and spent the next two years assessing his coaching. He let Moss get used to the fencers and the program, and in the 2015-2016 season, gave him more and more responsibility with the team.

“Zach fulfilled all my expectations and more,” Schiller said. “He’s really a very, very good coach and considering he’s young, he’s got some pretty damn good insights.”

Immediate impact

Moss said he knew he came in with a different set of values from his predecessor, and wanted to build a cohesive team. Starting as an assistant, he built relationships and rapports with the fencers.

Some of the changes were more stark. As head coach, Moss shifted the practice schedule from drills in the morning and conditioning in the afternoon to one combined morning practice, in an effort to free up course scheduling and mimic competitions’ timing.

Graduate sabre Emine Yücel, who Schiller recruited to NU from Turkey, said that though they are a little more tired for the conditioning session because of the combined practice, it’s a better method. She said refocusing for the second practice after a day of classes was brutal.

“To me it’s more important to be able to maintain that focus for a longer period of time, since when we’re competing we’re competing all day long,” Yücel said.

Moss also changed the inner workings of the practices themselves. He said he and his assistant Eric Momberg developed a different training plan, aimed at maximizing the team’s growth. Gone are the individual-focused practices the fencers may have grown up with at their private clubs. Instead, the fencers practice in a more team-friendly format.

“We want to create a structure that gets everyone moving in the same direction, so as opposed to a club model, our training environment is very structured,” Moss said. “That was something that we kind of put into place and really emphasized, because it’s what gets us the results that we’ve had.”

Those results have come fast, and even Moss said he’s surprised at the speed at which his team has improved. This year’s MFC championship was the first time the Cats have swept all three weapon titles, and NU finished the regular season 10-4 against its fellow top-10 teams.

Yücel said she has changed a huge amount as a fencer over her five years at NU, and now utilizes her physical dominance in a mature, effective way, thanks to Moss and Momberg. As for the team, she said while the targeted practices have helped, the biggest reason for the team’s upward mobility over the last three years has been the environment those coaches foster. She said that the fencers become more of a team every day, and everyone is more bonded and understanding.

“That bond and trust goes a long way when its 14-14 and we need to pull out one more bout to win,” she said. “Because then you know you’re not fencing for yourself in that stressful environment, but you’re fencing for every single person behind you, and you know that every single person behind you is wanting you and praying for you to win.”

Strong team environments are hard to find, and even harder to create. Perhaps it was a younger coach relating more to the fencers, perhaps it was the team practices, the program’s depth, or just the supportive nature of these individual student-athletes. Whatever it was, it’s clear Moss’s vision for cohesion has been realized and is yielding results.

“What made this program great the past three years is what we became as a team,” Yücel said. “Yes, we’re a great fencing team with great ability and great level of training, but I truly think that what makes us great is how we stand together.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @stephencouncil

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