After steadily climbing through the ranks for the past three years, the Columbia fencing team found its true comeback in the 2014-15 season. The Lions capped their historical season with No. 1 rankings for both the men’s and women’s teams, along with an Ivy League title and an NCAA Championship for both squads.
The hosting responsibilities for the Ivy League Fencing Championships went to Columbia this year, and head coach Michael Aufrichtig knew that it was the time to make good on a promise he had made when he first joined the Light Blue staff four years ago.
The Columbia women’s squad opened the Ivies with an undefeated first day, including a win over Princeton, which had boasted a 32-match winning streak prior to facing the Lions. The women went undefeated against every Ancient Eight squad and easily secured the title by the end of Monday’s competition.
For the second year in a row, the No. 2 Light Blue men’s team nabbed a share of the championship along with Harvard when they faced one another on Sunday, Feb. 8 and Monday, Feb. 9. Though the Crimson got the best of the Lions on Sunday, Columbia let that be the last of its defeats, going 2-0 on Monday to finish 4-1.
It all came down to the wire—just as it did last year—as junior épéeist Brian Ro and the Lions were one bout away from securing a share of the Ivy Championship. His Light Blue teammates flooded the mat as Ro got the final touch against Penn, ending the four-year drought of dual Ivy titles for Columbia’s fencing program.
After two grueling days of competition, Aufrichtig’s dream was realized as both of his squads took a hold of the league’s top prize in front of an enthusiastic home.
“At the end of the championship, I sat the team down and reminded them what our goal was this year—to win the men’s and the women’s Ivy Championships,” Aufrichtig said. “And I feel good about it. I can’t ask for anything more.”
As it turned out, Aufrichtig could ask for more—much more.
After Ivies, the pinnacle of the fencing season lies in the famed NCAA Championships, where the best of the best face off to determine who is the nation’s most elite squad. The Lions maximized their chances of earning that title by qualifying a full 12-person quota—a feat the program had not accomplished since 2008.
“We all thought we could do it, but you still have to actually go out and do it. The results speak for themselves,” Aufrichtig said after the NCAA Northeast Regionals, where the Light Blue snubbed Penn State by one qualifier. The Nittany Lions—the reigning national champs—submitted an 11-fencer roster at the Mid-Atlantic/South Regional competition, giving the Lions an early advantage.
When fencing’s March Madness rolled around in late March, Columbia took full advantage of the opportunity and reached the highest point possible—the NCAA Championship. For the first time in over two decades, the Light Blue took to the podium, first-place trophy in hand.
“I had a plan four years ago, and it was to bring the championship back to Morningside Heights, and here we are,” Aufrichtig said after the final bouts. “It’s just amazing. The entire team fenced their hearts out, and—at the same time—we were prepared.”
Though they were in second place at the close of the men’s competition on Friday, March 20, the Lions rallied back to take the top spot with 165 points—nine ahead of Notre Dame and reigning champion Penn State. Men’s épée and women’s saber led the way with 34 points for each division.
The championship came to the tune of nine All-American honors, the most the team has garnered in eight years.
Perhaps the most impressive showing of the weekend came from junior Jake Hoyle, who earned the men’s championship title in épée. The junior went 19-4 on the weekend, with three of his four losses coming down to a single point.
Hoyle’s effort earned him first-team All-American honors, but not before facing off against his teammate Ro in an intense semifinal bout.
“Brian and I have fenced each other countless times, and it’s always very even,” Hoyle said. “It’s split fifty-fifty, so I knew it was going to be a really good bout, and I knew we were both going to fence as hard as we could.”
Top-seeded Hoyle went back and forth with Ro and found himself on the losing end of Ro’s 13-12 lead with 15 seconds remaining. Hoyle tied things up off an attack, and went on to take the winning point in an extended victory to secure a spot in the championship bout.
Hoyle found himself against Princeton’s Jack Hudson. The two had faced off earlier in the weekend with Hoyle winning soundly 5-1. After leading throughout the bout, Hoyle took it on a 15-10 decision for his first NCAA title.
Junior Margaret Lu wasn’t about to let the intensity die down as the championships came to an end on Sunday, March 22. After a 19-4 weekend, the junior knocked off second-seeded Alanna Goldie of Ohio State in the foil semifinals in a close 15-14 bout. However, Lu was left to face the two-time reigning foil champion from Notre Dame—Lee Kiefer. After sticking to a tough bout, Lu fell to Kiefer in a 15-13 decision. Her effort earned her a silver medal in her first ever NCAA tournament appearance.
Columbia’s win marked the fifth different national champion over the past five years. Despite the ever-changing tide in college fencing, Aufrichtig said he wants to get his team back on the national stage next year.
“We’ve got a lot of juniors who are coming back next year, and some sophomores and freshmen who were in it this year,” he said. “We’ve got some great recruits coming in, and the goal next year is to go back and do it again.”
This is part of our Year in Review Issue. Read the rest of the issue here.