The Cornell fencing team began its season this past weekend at the Penn Invitational in Philadelphia, PA, where it went up against Penn, Temple, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Columbia.
The meet featured some of the country’s best fencing programs. The Columbia Lions won the NCAA Fencing Championship last season, Notre Dame finished second and Ohio State finished fifth.
Although the Red lost every match and almost every squad match, the Epee squad managed to achieve wins against Penn and Notre Dame.
“This weekend we fenced some of the best schools in the country,” said first-year head coach Daria Schneider. “The pressure was mainly on our opponents in the sense that they really were expected to win.”
Given how challenging the opposition was, Schneider says she is proud of the team’s results.
“Our goal was to stay focused, no matter what the score was and what was going on,” she said. “It’s not easy to… go in and fence another school that you know on paper is stronger than you and just keep doing that and scoring touches and keep picking away and winning bouts here and there ‒ that’s what they did and it was really great to see them do that and to see them stay so focused.”
These smaller successes are part of a season goal for Scheider’s program this year: to win touches in every match.
In fencing, even just winning touches against a highly ranked opponent can be extremely beneficial to an athlete’s power ranking. Individual power rankings, combined with the results of matches at the NCAA regional meet, determine which fencers qualify for the National Championships.
“If you fence a really good fencer – even if you only score one touch on them ‒ that helps your power ranking,” Schneider explained. “So that’s why it’s one thing to lose, but it’s very different to lose and get shut out than to lose and still be scoring against good people.”
Cornell also saw some individual successes over the weekend. Senior captain Victoria Wines — who fences on the Epee squad — won most of her bouts and led her squad to wins against Notre Dame and Penn.
“She always pretty much does exceptionally well,” Schneider said, on Wines. “She’s incredibly talented and hardworking and extremely passionate about fencing.”
As a first year coach, Schneider’s main goal in the first meet of the season was simply to see everyone compete and get a feel for the team’s fencers.
“I don’t know the athletes that well – I didn’t recruit them,” she said. “I make a lot of subs because I want to see what they can do and where their strengths are and where their weaknesses are… and so there wasn’t anyone we brought this past weekend who didn’t fence a match.”
This approach to the first meet gives the athletes a relatively blank slate to begin the season. As a result, Schneider got the chance to see a number of freshman walk-ons become a big part of the epee squad’s success.
Additionally, with a team made up predominantly of freshmen and sophomores, Schneider was impressed to see considerable leadership from upperclassmen.
“We had a lot of our upperclassmen giving some pep talks to our underclassmen at different points throughout the day and helping them get positive again and get refocused,” she said.
In particular, Schneider noted that junior Gabriella Zusin did a spectacular job stepping into the role of foil squad leader for the first time, succeeding a captain and four-time NCAA qualifier.
“She just really was so focused on her whole squad and not just on herself,” Schneider said.
More generally, coach Schneider is excited by how the group has been developing as a team during practices this season.
“In practice [I’m] hearing them more and more starting to give each other feedback,” she said. “Fencing’s a really individual sport so there’s a lot of drill work and working with the coach so the better you can assist teammates with drills, the quicker you can become a strong fencer, so that’s really key to us improving as a team over the next year.”
Looking ahead to this coming weekend, the Red will travel to Vassar for another invitational. The team will have the opportunity to compete against Fairleigh Dickinson, Haverford, Wellesley, CCNY, Sacred Heart, Vassar, Northwestern, and Stevens. Schneider expects her team to be dominant.
“We’ll have more of the pressure on us because we’ll be expected to win most of our matches,” she said.
A match to watch will be Cornell versus Northwestern. Schneider believes the teams are somewhat evenly matched and similar in a number of ways and is looking forward to the opportunity not only to pick up some wins but to see how her team is developing and learning to compete.
“I love working with the team,” she said. “There’s a different challenge every day and I have such a specific idea and so much confidence in where we can go.”