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Fencing: Narrow losses at the Elite Invitational set the ‘Cats back heading into winter campaign

The No. 4 Wildcats will have work to do come the new year.

@NUWFencing/X

In my first article of the season, I mulled the newfound responsibilities and pressures that come with expectations. Given that Northwestern’s fencing unit finished last regular season at No. 4 in the U.S. Fencing Coaches Association Poll and kicked off its 2023 campaign at No. 5, it felt inevitable that it’d be tough to live up to such lofty ambitions. After all, the team is led largely by underclassmen and competes in a region that tends to lag behind its New England rivals.

All this to say that as some of the ‘Cats dispersed to the November edition of the North American Cup, a 5-3 record with each loss coming at the hands of a ranked opponent felt slightly expected.

In an effort to get back on track, a flurry of NU’s swords participated in this month’s NAC, ultimately flexing inspiring finishes. Though the monthly Cups don’t affect a team’s overall record, they serve as benchmarks for athletes to size up their collegiate competitors.

Megumi Oishi, who — now in her sophomore year — needs no introduction, shined. The sabre took home a third-place finish in the junior division. Behind her was first-year Alex Chen, who has consistently impressed through the early goings of her college career. As a collective, Northwestern took home fourth in the junior sabre team category, thanks to contributions from Adele Bois and Amy Lu.

The other bright spot at the tune-up event was sophomore Anna Damratoski, who snatched sixth in the junior epee event. Karen Wang, who frequents podiums, had a relatively down day, coming in 26th (at an event as big as a NAC, a No. 20 finish being a “down day” is quite the flex).

Juliana Hung, a San Francisco product, was a bright spot for the foils. The sophomore tallied a 15th-place finish.

The foils were the weakest group for the ‘Cats through the first few weeks of the campaign, having been blown out against the likes of No. 4 Harvard and No. 14 Stanford at the Western Invitational. Hung’s outing is a source of optimism for Moss and the rest of the coaching staff.

After the November NAC interlude, Northwestern got back to organized team play via the Elite Invitational. Shockingly, the Ohio-based event featured an even more competitive slate than the Western Invitational did. Among the five teams the ‘Cats faced at the Elite Invite, four were ranked — three were in the top 10.

As has been the case for much of this season, NU dropped nearly all of the close bouts they were in. Whereas it felt like the 2022 run boasted plenty of close wins, the purple swords seem to be on the losing end of nearly every close match.

The weekend kicked off with a 14-13 loss to No. 7 Penn. On a course for vengeance, the foils dominated in the loss, beating the Quakers’ unit, 6-3. The sabres squeaked out a 5-4 victory, but a poor showing from the epees (2-7) lost NU the match.

Last year, Northwestern’s statement win was against No. 1 Notre Dame in an emphatic 19-8 performance. This year, the team got its shot at the consensus No. 1 in Princeton but faced an entirely different outcome, losing to the Tigers, 15-12.

In an unusual outing for the sabres, the group went 0-9, essentially making it impossible for the ‘Cats to steal the W. The only reason the final score was close was because the foils, clearly determined, went on an incredible 9-0 run of their own. A 2-7 going for the epees was the straw that broke the camel’s back, handing NU its fourth consecutive loss dating back to the Western Invite.

Northwestern picked up its first win of the weekend and its only against a ranked competitor when it got revenge against No. 14 Stanford. Consistency across classes proved key in this one, as the epees and foils each went 4-5 while the sabres clutched the victory with a modest 6-3 win.

In the last ranked match of the event, the ‘Cats took on the Blue Devils but couldn’t seem to pull away. They went 4-5 in every category, ultimately resulting in a 15-12 loss.

For what it’s worth, Moss and Co. handled business, 19-8, against a more tame Cleveland State team.

The ‘Cats now sit at 7-6 on the season with about half as many losses as they accrued in their entire 2022 56-match regular season, when they went 43-13. In fairness, there likely isn’t a team in collegiate fencing that can flex the same strength of schedule that Northwestern can. Additionally, the Wildcats struggled last year in the Elite Invitational, which proved to be a breeding ground for behemoth-on-behemoth matchups.

The looming question remains: can NU win against top talent at all, let alone consistently? If not, title aspirations will continue to remain more than an arm’s length away.

Fortunately, the Wildcat fencers won’t have to answer that query quite yet, as the less important December and January NACs are all that’s on the schedule until mid-January.