It was another dominant year for the Notre Dame fencing team in the 2021-2022 season as they claimed their 12th national title — their fourth in the last five championships. The title triumph followed an excellent regular season where the men’s team (38-0) and the women’s team (42-3) finished ranked first and third in the nation, respectively.
This year brought some different challenges for the team as they got back to a regular schedule following a COVID-impacted 2020-2021 season. That meant that the Ivy League — where many of the other top fencing programs like Columbia, Princeton and Harvard compete — was back in action and looking to dethrone Notre Dame.
The Ivy League’s absence at the 2021 NCAA Championships meant a reduced field, something that sowed doubt on the quality of Notre Dame’s opposition on their way to the title. According to saber coach Christian Rascioni, the team used that doubt as fuel for the new season.
“Not having the Ivies there, it worked as motivation. We wanted to challenge a stronger field, a full field. The team was just excited to go out and challenge the strongest programs in the country,” Rascioni said.
Rascioni also praised the culture that head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia has created within the team during his tenure. Since Kvaratskhelia took over as Notre Dame Fencing head coach in 2014, he has led the Fighting Irish to four national titles and five ACC titles and coached 13 individual national champions.
“Coach Gia has built an amazing culture in the team,” Rascioni said. “It is easy to fit into the culture and together make it even stronger. The kids were ready from the start to work hard, to sacrifice and to act and train like one team with just one goal: to win the championship.”
Rascioni really emphasized the character of the team and Kvaratskhelia’s role in it, calling him his MVP for the season. He also emphasized the team’s focus on the whole instead of individual fencers.
“One of the best qualities of our team is that it’s not about individuals. It’s one team.” Rascioni said.
This year was also the first time since 1998 that Notre Dame hosted the national championships. That year the Irish were runners-up by just two points to a Penn State team that won six consecutive titles from 1995-2000. Coach Rascioni reflected on the additional challenges this posed for the team.
“It’s very different. There’s a lot of pressure when you have friends and family in the stands supporting you, giving you that home-field advantage. You feel almost a duty to win. There is an expectation that you are going to win and that makes it difficult.” Rascioni said. “It was really different to compete with full bleachers and so many people cheering for us. It was just motivating and it fired up the whole team and all the coaches.”
Rascioni spoke about the consistency that the team will have going into next year with at least ten of their twelve fencers from the national championships returning. So far, only two-time individual foil champion Nick Itkin has said he will move on. Rascioni said that of the other seniors, knowing Jared Smith is still deciding his future for her and senior Kara Linder will stay and use her final year of eligibility. He also spoke very highly of the incoming recruiting class, especially in the women’s epee.
“We are going to have many freshmen and especially in women’s epee we will have a very strong recruiting class,” Rascioni said. “One of the best young ladies from Hungary, Eszter Muhari, is going to be at Notre Dame and she is already very, very good. She’s one of the best in the world at junior levels and very competitive at senior levels as well.”
At just 19 years old, Muhari joins Notre Dame fencing as the No. 79 women’s epeeist in the world for the senior circuit. She also recently placed sixth at the World Junior Championships that were held in Dubai on April 8. She is currently ranked No. 3 in the world in the junior women’s epee category.
Rascioni also commented on the challenge of staying at the top of the fencing world. He attributed much of Notre Dame’s continued success to the activity of their fencers outside of NCAA competition in international tournaments across the world.
“Our best fencers are competing on different levels, on the international circuit where they compete to try and make their senior national teams or junior national teams. They also compete at a national level, in the North American Cup. It helps them to stay focused and to manage that hunger to win, that motivation to work hard in the gym and to always give their 100%,” Rascioni said.