Fencing Back In ACC Mix

After more than three decade hiatus, sport will include postseason championship in 2015

GREENSBORO, N.C. (Steve Phillips, theACC.com) – It has been nearly 34 years since the Atlantic Coast Conference held a postseason fencing championship, but the drought is coming to an end.

Plans are in motion for the resumption of a postseason ACC Fencing Championship that will feature both men’s and women’s competition, beginning in February of 2015.

“It was great when we had it before,” said North Carolina coach Ron Miller, whose extraordinary 47-year tenure includes first-place finishes in eight of the 10 ACC Fencing Championships that were held from 1971 through 1980.

“It’s been a long 30-some years, and this is probably the best news we’ve had during my coaching career.  We’re getting back into the ACC and getting things cranked up again.”

      ACC Fencing Coaches
      ACC Fencing Coaches, from left to right, Duke's Alex
Beguinet, BC's Syd Fadner, UNC's Ron Miller and
Notre Dame's Janusz Bednarski
      (From @ACCpix on Instagram)

The change became possible this past July when Notre Dame officially joined the ACC giving the conference four varsity programs, as required by ACC bylaws for championship sport recognition. The Fighting Irish will join UNC, Boston College and Duke to provide the “magic number” for a championship, starting with the 2014-15 season.

“I remember shortly after we joined the ACC (in 2005) and a conversation I had with Coach Miller,” Boston College coach Syd Fadner said. “He said, ‘One more school. We just need one more school.’ And now it has happened, and we’re very excited.”

It is not as if ACC fencing has totally fallen off the radar since its last league championship was held in 1980. Duke and North Carolina have both posted top-10 NCAA finishes, and veteran Blue Devil coach Alex Beguinet has seen his fencers claim four NCAA individual titles. Three of those were won by Becca Ward, only the fourth women in the 23-year history of the NCAA Fencing Championships to claim three national championships.  When Ward received the 2012 Mary Garber Award as the ACC’s top female athlete, she became the first recipient compete in a sport outside of the league’s championship certification and administration.

Fencers from ACC schools still earned All-America honors for their performances, both athletically and in the classroom. Fencing student-athletes continued to be recognized for their academic performances when the ACC released its annual academic honor roll.

But for the past three decades, Miller always felt that something was missing. He noted that at the time several ACC institutions dropped varsity fencing and the sport lost its championship certification, three programs were ranked among the top 10 nationally.

“The ACC was one of the strongest fencing conferences in the country,” Miller said. "That could have been maintained. I’m not saying that we’ve dropped back that much, because the schools we have now in the ACC are all good. It’s just that having that time away from it is probably going to make for a little period of adjustment. But hopefully not too much. I think we’re ready to jump in and go.”

Boston College, Duke and UNC will “jump in” with Notre Dame – a perennial national power that placed second at the 2013 NCAA Championships and owns eight NCAA titles, including three since current head coach Janusz Bednarski took the helm in 2003.

Duke’s Beguinet described his reaction in the fall of 2012 upon hearing the news that Notre Dame would be joining the ACC.

“I thought it was kind of neat at first, just like when Boston College first joined. Then I thought about what it meant for fencing with Notre Dame joining the league, and I said, ‘Wow!’ And then I said, ‘Darn!’” Beguinet joked. “But this will be a very, very tough competition for the ACC.”

Boston College’s Fadner, who has led her men’s and women’s teams to a combined nine New England Intercollegiate Fencing Championships titles, looks forward to the challenge.

“It’s a great opportunity,” she said. “It’s a scary opportunity, but a great opportunity.”

With Notre Dame having regularly competed with ACC teams in both regular-season and NCAA competition, the Irish won’t be venturing into completely unfamiliar territory.

“It will be great to be here,” Bednarski said. “The ACC is a very famous conference, and it is known in all sports for having top players. We are now going to have fencing with such schools as North Carolina and Duke and Boston College. We are very excited to compete with them for championships.

“It will be interesting to get new rivals. We will be chased as one of the top national teams, but that is what the sport is about. We will have to try to win again in a different conference, in a different environment, against different athletes.”

Bednarski believes ACC fans unfamiliar with the sport of fencing will embrace the sport if they sample the action at the future Championships.

“I think that they will see an exciting sport, a sport on the very high level, what I would call ‘mastery,” he said. “We have a very high level of athletes, Olympic medalists. It is an opportunity to see not only to see NCAA athletes, but world class athletes also.”

UNC’s Miller concurs.

“The progress of the sport has been amazing,” Miller said. “We have far more elite athletes in the sport (than when the ACC last sanctioned varsity fencing).”

The ACC fencing head coaches met with league officials and sport committee members earlier this week to begin hammering out details of the sport’s re-entry into conference championship competition. The period of transition will continue throughout the coming season, but Lee Butler, the ACC’s assistant commissioner who will oversee the ACC Fencing Championships, eagerly awaits 2015.

“We are happy to be able to give our fencing student-athletes the same championship experience that many their peers are getting in other sports on campus,” Butler said. “It’s great to be able tell them, ‘Welcome back.’”