PHILADELPHIA - The men's fencing squad officially kicks off the team portion of its 2012-13 season on Saturday at the Vassar Invitational. The Red and Blue will take part in four bouts, facing North Carolina, Vassar, Sacred Heart and NYU throughout the day. Prior to this weekend, members of the Quakers competed at Penn State's Garret Open in early November as individuals. Michael Mills used that opportunity to become the first men's sabre to take home the title in the event's 41-year history.
Penn will be hard-pressed to match the start it reeled off last season - a 16-0 record that left the Quakers as the nation's last undefeated team. Nevertheless, expectations are high for a group that returns four of its six NCAA qualifiers from 2011-12 and adds in seven freshmen (five of whom will compete in foil) to a team that closed last year in seventh place at the NCAA Championships.
Evan Prochniak returns for his senior season and is one of the undisputed leaders of the team. A first-team All-America as a sophomore, Prochniak again left his mark at last year's NCAA Championships, finishing eighth in the sabre competition and earning second-team All-America honors. He was also Penn's lone representative on the first-team All-Ivy squad. During team competition, Prochniak led the sabre squad with 40 victories for the second consecutive season. He's joined by sophomore Sean Turner, a second-team All-Ivy member last year, and Mills, a junior who finished the NCAA Championships last season in 16th position before his statement victory at Penn State last month.
The epee team will be in good hands with the return of a pair of NCAA qualifiers, junior Clifford Fishler and sophomore Rene Gannon-O'Gara. Gannon-O'Gara struggled at times in his first year for Penn but shifted gears late in the season, placing fifth at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regionals, then following that up with a 10th place finish at the NCAA Championships to garner honorable mention All-America honors.
Far and away the least experienced weapon group will be the foil squad. Sophomore Jason Chang led the entire Penn team with 44 victories in the regular season, but it was the graduated Vidur Kapur and Zane Grodman who qualified for NCAAs. With those two seniors departed, a large burden will be shared among Chang and five freshmen. Adam Elkassas proved ready for the challenge at the Garret Open, leading the Penn foilists with a fifth place showing.
Last season began with an emotional victory that helped catapult the Quakers to their incredible opening run. Competing at home in the Philadelphia Invitational, Penn met Sacred Heart in an intense battle that came down to the wire with the score knotted at 13-13. Fishler finished off his Pioneer opponent in the final epee bout to give the Quakers the win and set the team off on their opening charge. That result will surely be on the minds of many of the participants when the two teams square off once again in Penn's third bout of the day, scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Other rematches from a season ago include the matchup with the Tar Heels, which will open the day at 11 a.m., and a 3:30 p.m. meeting with NYU. Penn downed UNC twice last season - 26-1 and 16-11 - and bested NYU, 20-7. The day's other matchup will be against the host Vassar Brewers at 12 p.m.
After Saturday's bouts, Penn will have over a month off before they take to the strips again. The Quakers are next in action on Jan. 12 at the Penn State Invitational.