VC men’s and women’s fencing teams met for the first time last week to officially mark the beginning of the 2014-15 season. After lengthy recruiting efforts and a summer of preparation, the College’s fencing team will finally get the opportunity to see where they stand as a team when they step onto the strip for the first time on Nov. 1 in the tournament known The Big One in Northampton, Mass.
Both teams are expecting good results right out of the gate. Part of that success, according to head coach Bruce Gillman, will be attributed to the coaching up of the incoming freshmen class. Coming off some strong showings in past years, Gillman is bringing on eleven new athletes to help bolster the 2014 roster: six freshmen and five freshwomen. The new talent will be expected to make an immediate impact and play a major role this season, as the men say goodbye to foil captain Matt Steinschneider ’14. As well as being without the veteran presence of Steinschneider, some members plan to study abroad this year and will miss the fencing season which runs from Nov. 1 to the last matches in March.
One of Gillman’s season goals is, as stated in writing, “To integrate all of the brand new freshman talent into a better team this season than we had last.” Gillman will have his hands full with so many new freshmen recruits as the women are bringing on Bridget Clafin and Kirsten Denman, both foil fencers, as well as sabreists Annie Innes-Gold, Emily Stamm, and Sabrina Rivers. The men, with a similar number of recruits, are taking in only one foilist, Tom Racek, but two sabreists Eli Polston and Eric Lee, and three épée fencers: Jonathan Alperstein, George Whiteside and Daniel Swerzenski.
In a written statement, Senior captain Tre Artis recognized the importance of helping his new teammates, stating, “Transitioning to the college fencing arena is always one of the toughest challenges for incoming freshmen. It’s a team format (which is unique about college fencing) and the competition is tougher but also you’re balancing academics, commitments, traveling and training. It’s tough to juggle at first. Some freshmen transition seamlessly, for others it’s a process. We (captains, coaches and experienced players) want to help the freshmen get used to fencing in college as best we can so that they can contribute to our program in the ways we know they can.” His co-captain, sophomore Elam Coalson, had similar thoughts, “…[T]he team is very young this year. There’s only one senior in the starting lineup, and many freshmen will be given large roles. It takes some time to adapt to collegiate fencing, and we might have a slightly slow start this year because of it.”
This large incoming class of freshmen has its advantages as well, including bringing important depth to the bench, which is important to have as the season progresses and injuries begin to pile up. Coalson explained the significance of team depth, stating, “The team is very deep this year, which is a significant strength. If somebody’s injured, sick or just having an off day, there’s almost always somebody else who can fill in well for them.”
Gillman has high hopes for fencing this year with a large incoming class and experienced veterans: “To be more competitive in the Northeast Fencing Conference this season, looking towards returning to being Conference Champion in 15-16.” This goal is echoed by many of his athletes, like senior sabre fencer Anastasia Stevens, who added, “I want to build our team and be competitive in our conference…Basically, we want to win as many bouts as possible this year.”
Artis expanded upon Stevens’ goals, remarking, “One of main goals is to improve our conference records and standings. The men’s team finished 5th and the women 6th in conference standings last year and we had a total of two conference all stars (one on the men’s side, one on the women’s). We really would like to do a lot better than that. We can and we have.”
In fact, in 2011, the women’s team won the conference and VC fencing won the combined conference championship. With this in mind, Artis also has hope for continued success on an individual level; “Additionally, we want to qualify someone for the NCAAs, something we haven’t been able to do since 2012. This is always a challenge as not many people get to qualify in the entire Northeast region so it takes so exceptional fencing to get there but I think we have plenty of people capable to making it there.” Stevens mentioned another difficulty in the fencing schedule: the numerous Division I opponents the Brewers will see this season; “The usual—facing Division I schools like Brown, Harvard, Penn State, Columbia, etc. [will be an obstacle].” But, concerning their most intimidating opponents, Stevens said, “We’re hoping to beat schools like Boston College, Haverford and NYU. Those might be close matches!”
Konno is looking forward to the challenge they will face in Sacred Heart University, saying, “One of our toughest matchups will be against Sacred Heart University. Every year we go against SHU multiple times during the season, and they are often the best-ranked team at our competitions.”
VC fencing, with Gillman at the forefront, has worked hard to come up with ways to make success in Northeast Fencing Conference and NCAAs possible. Gillman explained his goals for the team: “To make the team more mentally strong both on and off the strip.” Like any other collegiate sport, team chemistry and mental training is a big part of VC fencers’ focus in the 2014 season. To increase focus on the mental aspect of the sport Gillman has made an important staffing decision; “We have Coach Matt Mitchell, PhD and Clinical Psychologist working with the team this season and as a Vassar Alum and foil fencer, he should be able to help.”
As a captain, Artis will work to translate the importance of mental toughness, commenting, “Regarding the mental side of things, we want everyone to maintain their intensity and focus when they are on and off the fencing strip. Also staying mentally fresh, positive, not getting too frustrated as well as challenging yourself.”
On the strip, the fencers have been training to improve the physical side of their skill set as well as their mental fortitude. Artis outlines the team’s plan concerning team endurance, explaining, “Regarding our goal to build team fitness, it’s something that we have been working already in this preseason. We had team lifting sessions in the Kenyon Weight Room with Coach Cam Williams who is Vassar’s Strength and Conditioning Coach. He has given us many tools that we can use on our own to become stronger and also integrate into our practices. Speaking of practices, this year the Captains have worked on diversifying warm ups (some agility, strength, cardio, etc) just so that we are building ourselves physically all around.”
Some of these plans are already coming into fruition, said Stevens; “We’ve already been improving the quality of our practices, doing team workouts and setting personal and team goals for ourselves.”
Gillman’s final, and perhaps most important goal for his 2014 athletes is as follows: “To provide the best experience for all our student athletes. One that they will treasure for the rest of their lives.”
Athletes have already recognized this value at work on their team this semester. Stevens said, “Our head coach, Bruce Gillman, is incredibly supportive and does whatever he can to help us achieve our goals.”
Stevens recognized that it is not always easy to keep spirits up during the season. She went on to explain, “And as with any sport, balancing school and fencing is hard when you’re in the middle of the season. We have a period in February where we have four meets in two weeks (each meet consists of fencing 2-6 schools). Keeping the momentum and enthusiasm up when your team is tired and stressed about homework/sleep can be challenging.”
With the support system that the fencing team provides, Gillman’s goal has the possibility of coming into fruition. Artis appreciates this aspect of his sport, saying, “I’m definitely excited to start a new year with the team. Each new year feels like the slate has been wiped clean and you can start all over again. Each new year is an opportunity to be better than you were before, Looking forward to new obstacles and achievements is always an exciting prospect. We have a lot of new faces this year and that is always exciting. New members to the team always bring an energy with them that is refreshing and fun.”
Senior sabre captain Kathleen Konno elaborates on her role as a one of the captains of the women’s team, saying, “I’m really excited to watch this team grow and bond together. It’s fun to see the freshmen begin to fit into their roles and grow more comfortable in them. It’s a big honor to be the captain of this team, I think it’s going to be one of the most successful years in program history.”