Blue and Gold Illustrated

May 2021 Issue*

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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38 MAY 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED ND SPORTS BY TODD D. BURLAGE N otre Dame fencing head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia and his ter- rific team got a rude but per- haps beneficial wake-up call in late February when positive COVID-19 tests forced his Irish to withdraw from the ACC Championships, temporarily shut down team activities and anx- iously wonder whether the rest of this season — including the NCAA Cham- pionships — would hold together. Disappointed but thankful once the pandemic threat subsided, the Irish fencers used the down time to refo- cus their detailed attention to COVID protocols, return to action, and even- tually claim four individual titles and the 11th team national championship in Irish program history March 25-28 at University Park, Pa. The Irish tallied 201 total points and cruised to the title over Penn State, the host school that compiled 182 points. The 201 points were the most scored by any team in the history of the current championship format that combines a school's men's and women's results. Both the Irish men and women had five of their six fencers make the fi- nals. Sophomore Marcello Olivares (foil) and freshman Luke Linder (sa- bre) secured their first individual titles on the men's side, while senior Stefani Deschner (foil) and junior Kara Linder (sabre) claimed championships for the ladies in the four-day competition that Notre Dame led wire to wire. Kara and Luke Linder comprised a powerful brother-sister title combo that helped the Irish secure and in- crease their lead each day. In total, the team claimed four in- dividual championships, two runner- up finishes, 10 first-team All-America honors, one second-team All-Ameri- can and one third-team All-American. All this celebration, gratification and success came after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the 2020 fencing season last March before the NCAA Championships — a title Notre Dame was well-situated to win. "We had already been through so much," Kvaratskhelia shared. "So this competition this year was a joy for us. We were deprived of the opportunity to compete last year, so we tried to enjoy this run as much as we could." The Notre Dame athletics office in- dicated that the fencing program has now tied Fighting Irish football for the most national titles in school history. This marked the third NCAA cham- pionship under "Coach G" since Kvaratskhelia — the 2020 ACC Men's Coach of the Year — took the Irish top job in 2014, after he won another title at Notre Dame in 2011 as an assistant under head coach Janusz Bednarski. In a season laden with uncertainty because of the ominous threat of a potential coronavirus outbreak and another abrupt cancellation, Kvar- atskhelia admitted this title is espe- cially satisfying. "This was by far the most chal- lenging and difficult season that was filled with anguish and anxiety. Get- ting there was the hardest part, just knowing that even one accidental [COVID] case would've wiped out the team's chances to compete and succeed," he said. "But what was so hard at the time as we worked through it made it so much more sweet at the end of the day." Enhancing the satisfaction for Kvar- atskhelia was the way his athletes re- sponded after COVID stole a chance at an ACC title in late February this season and a national title in March last year. Five days before the 2020 NCAA Championships were set to begin last season, title hopes were shattered when all college sports were shut down. So when asked if anything sur- prised him about this year's champi- onship run, Kvaratskhelia reflected more on surviving through the day- to-day challenges his program faced beyond the competition strip rather than what happened on it. "The surprise was how our athletes handled adversity," he said. "And when we got to the [national] com- petition, they really showed their best qualities. Everyone performed to their abilities. It was an absolute dynamic performance by the entire team." Titles aside, Kvaratskhelia was quick to thank the commitment from the Notre Dame family and staff in keeping his athletes safe and healthy during a once-in-a-generation season and pandemic. "The biggest success," he said, "is that our athletes were always safe and our athletes were always healthy. Win- ning a national championship was obviously gratifying, but protecting the well-being of our young men and women was much more important." ✦ UP TO 11 Fencing ties football for the most national titles in school history Notre Dame's fencing team had to withdraw from the ACC Championships due to positive COVID-19 tests, but rebounded a month later to win the program's 11th national title while racking up 201 points — the most scored by any team in the history of the current championship format. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS

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