Irish fencers add bright spot with sabre squad
By MIKE CONNOLLY
Associate Sports Editor
Fifteen months ago, four women began training with one purpose in mind — to help Notre Dame win a national championship in fencing in 2000.
With 2000 as the first year of NCAA competition in women's sabre, Carianne McCullough, Donna Mowchan, Katie Flanagan and Mary Beth Willard spent an entire season training and practicing in preparation for this year. As walk-ons that first started fencing in physical education class, the four tried to get their feet wet last year.
"Last year was getting my foot in the door," Flanagan said. "I had never picked up a weapon before P.E. I didn't even know about the team. Last year I was just getting a feel for it but I always had in mind this year — knowing that I would be competing."
Five days ago, the women's sabre team made its debut at New York University. The squad compiled a 4-0 record against top competitors St. John's, Stanford and Columbia to become the only Irish squad to start the season undefeated.
The strong showing was surprising even to sabre captain McCullough.
"I think we thought we were going to do OK," she said. "I think we had a little bit of a shock when we beat St. John's. They were supposed to be one of our toughest matches and we beat them 5-4."
McCullough and Flanagan were joined on the strip by freshman Natalia Mazur in the first competition of the season. Mazur led the squad in wins with 10 while McCullough and Flanagan were not far behind with nine and eight wins, respectively. Flanagan fenced especially well against St. John's — compiling a 3-0 record.
Head coach Yves Auriol was very pleased with the sabre team's results.
"Most of the fencers came from the physical education program," he said. "And it is really amazing how much progress they have made in the year and a half that they have been training."
Unlike most schools that rely on experienced fencers who have converted to sabre fencers, members of the Irish squad had never fenced in NCAA competition before last weekend. Last year the Irish only competed in a few exhibition matches against schools with women's sabre teams.
"[Last year] we were just excited to have any fencing time we could," McCullough said. "At the time we had never competed at all as opposed to some fencers who came to school and had already fenced in a lot of competitions. We had never even seen competition until we got on the strip against Northwestern and other schools that have women's sabre."
While the sabre group trained everyday just like every other squad, it did not travel to away meets. Missing out on some of experiences last year was difficult, according to Flanagan.
"It was disappointing when they came home from away meets and had all their stories," Flanagan said. "But we knew going into it that we weren't going to be doing anything last year and it was all for this year."
Brian Banas is a big reason for the strong start by the squad. Banas, who fenced sabre on the men's side from 1996 through 1999, helped coach the women last year and has continued to lend a hand this year.
"Brian Banas really taught us everything about the basics of sabre last year," McCullough said. "He really took us under his wing. Our squad was kind of like his baby, I guess."
Banas' "baby" is all grown up now and faces a stiff test this weekend when defending national champion Penn State comes to town. After such a strong showing against St. John's, Notre Dame just needs to stay upbeat, according to McCullough.
"We need to keep the spirit that we had last weekend," she said. "We had unbelievable spirit on the strip. All of us watched everyone's bouts and were constantly cheering. We just have to keep practicing hard. Attendance has never been a problem for the women's sabre team. We are pretty much putting all of our heart into it."
No matter how the rest of the season pans out, the opportunity to be a part of the first women's sabre team in Irish history is special, according to Flanagan,
"Right now I don't think anything of it," she said. "I am just trying to do my best. But later on I will look back and be like `Wow, I was part of the first sabre team at Notre Dame.'"
All Sports Stories for Thursday, January 27, 2000