Debic an inspiring force for the Irish fencing squad
PALO ALTO, Calf.
The floor shook as the Penn State fencing team stomped their feet and screamed to cheer on their teammate, Gang Lu.
A few feet away the Notre Dame fencing team screamed "Oz" just as loud to inspire their teammate, Ozren Debic.
With the bout tied 4-4, the tension could not have been higher in the match between two of the top collegiate foilists in the country.
Amid the screaming and stomping, Debic turned to his fans and smiled and stuck out his tongue, seemingly oblivious to the pressure of the match. The pressure didn't affect his fencing either as the freshman from Croatia easily won the last touch and the bout against Lu, 5-4.
"I try to be relaxed," Debic said. "That is the key to fencing 23 bouts. You have to forget if you lost the bout before. That's the only way you can maintain your quality throughout the tournament."
Debic stayed relaxed through the 2000 NCAA Fencing Championships and won 20 of 23 bouts for the Irish. His record earned his a second-place finish in the round robin tournament and a spot in the four-man tournament for first place.
In the semifinals, Debic cruised through Ayo Griffin of Yale 15-8 to reach the finals against Felix Reichling of Stanford. Reichling, the 1999 champion, had defeated Debic in the round robin tournament.
Debic stayed with Reichling early but in the end the former German national team member was too strong for the Irish freshman.
"In the bout against Felix, he was more prepared," Debic said. "He was a better fencer. He is not as good as he was before when he was on the German national team but he was still better today."
On most days, no one is better than Debic.
He won 42 bouts for the Irish and his single season winning percentage was the fifth-best ever by an Irish foilist. After the first weekend of the season when he dropped three bouts, Debic did not lose a single regular season bout and won both the Midwest Fencing Conference and the Midwest Regional titles. Once Debic adjusted to the NCAA system of fencing tournaments, he was nearly unstoppable.
"It took me a few tournaments to get used to this kind of competition," he said. "Here, all the bouts are five-touch bouts and if you lose them you lose your ranking. Your seeding can go down if you aren't being careful enough. In the World Championships, if you practice hard and get to the point where you are really good, the 15-point bouts always show which fencer is better."
Debic enjoys the 15-touch bouts that characterize World Cup events more than the five-touch bouts that the NCAA uses in every contest except the finals and semifinals. Nevertheless, he is still happy with his second-place finish.
"I am satisfied," he said. "It is such a risky system and the referees aren't that good. The bouts are too short so if the referee makes a bad call, it can make a very big difference. I lost three bouts that way the first day."
In addition to adjusting to a new style of fencing, Debic also had to adjust to a new country and culture when he began his freshman year. Coming from a small town in Croatia, Debic finds the American love of big things puzzling.
"Everything has to be enormous and huge — the bigger the better," he said. "At first I thought that Notre Dame was huge but then when I went to Penn State and other colleges, I saw that Notre Dame was actually pretty small. I am glad I came here because for American standards it has an intimate atmosphere."
With the way he has won bouts for the Irish, Notre Dame is glad he came too.
All Sports Stories for Monday, March 27, 2000