by Andrew Garda
There’s a joke floating around the Montclair High School fencing team that fencing is the one sport uniquely suited to a pandemic.
Everyone is masked at all times.
There are only two participants on the strip at one time.
And if anyone gets close, you can stab them.
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“That is true,” said new head coach Donovan Holtz.
There was plenty of stabbing action – with blunted blades of course – as the Mounties launched their season against a tough Millburn team in the two gyms at the George Innes Annex on Wednesday, Jan. 27.
The matches were both streamed on the Montclair High School website, the first of many sporting events which will air there this winter season.
The girls came out of the battle with a 14-13 victory on the strength of dominant efforts by Nzinga, Assata and Amira Mutkabbir who only lost one bout between them. The triplets were joined by senior foil Georgia Chen, who won her bouts 2-1.
Maria Linietsky, Olivia Law, Emily Dia, Sophie Miller, Madelyn Hedgepeth and Kali Tolles all competed hard as well. The team showed that their mix of season veterans and new blood is a potent combination, and should serve them well going forward.
As sophomores like Dia, Law and Tolles continue to get on the strip and gain experience, this team will only continue to become an even more dangerous opponent.
Things were rougher in the boys gym, as the young team had a hard time landing points against the seasoned Millers squad, falling 19-8. Even senior sabers George Buccino and Jude Eaves struggled, scoring just one win between them.
There was plenty of positive to take from the match, though. Juniors Sam Zichelli and Alexander Brown both scored two wins, with fellow junior Alejandro Kaplan scoring one on the épée strip. Also on the épées, sophomore Simon Garda scored a win, and nearly had another one, falling 4-5 on the last touch of that bout while freshman Mitchell O’Keefe subbed onto the saber strip and scored a win as well.
While not exactly the start they wanted, the boys definitely showed ability and tenacity against one of the best teams in the county. Last year, the boys lost by nearly the same score, but ended the season with a strong 6-3 record.
For the girls, momentum from their 9-2 2019-20 season has clearly carried over and they seem poised for a great season once again.
MHS has every intention of having that full season as well, and the team is focused on being very COVID-19 conscious.
Fencing is one of the only sports where masks are worn the entire time, and MHS fencers are wearing masks under their protective masks as well. Holtz said that all fencers are required to wear masks whether they are fencing or not.
The coach said fencers have an advantage to start.
“Fencers are already some of the brightest athletes in the planet anyway,” he said. “And like judo and other individual sports it is all about discipline, discipline and discipline. If any sport can get through this, it’s ours.”
With the departure of Ed Chang, Holtz has stepped into the head coach role, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a stranger year for your first as a head coach.
Luckily, Holtz was part of the staff last year, when he helped shepherd the girls’ run through the NJSIAA team tournament, which ended with a loss to a tough Montgomery team in the semifinals.
All three girls squads — saber, foil and épée — also competed in the New Jersey Interscholastic Fencing Association (NJIFA) Squad Tournament, with saber taking second place, foil finishing in sixth and the épées in ninth. The boys épée squad also competed, though several starters were out due to sickness and injury.
That meant multiple fencers gained experience they normally wouldn’t have against some of the top fencers in New Jersey.
Holtz — who along with his head-coaching duties manages the épées — and his coaching staff, Shakil Uddin and Jared Pershad (foil) and Julie Carlsen (saber), will need those young fencers to step up this year.
The number of fencers coming out for the team has dropped a little, to around 50, though Holtz said some kids were still being cleared and it was hard to get a full fix on numbers.
The team saw a lot of graduations, which has left some disciplines, like épée, with barely enough fencers to field a squad (a weapon needs three fencers to compete), and girls saber lost several top fencers.
It’s going to be a young team, with plenty of opportunity for athletes to get on the strip.
Despite that, some seniors will be key to having a successful season and bolstering the efforts of the younger fencers.
Amira Mutakabbir will lead the girls épée squad. She had a 12-1 record during the last season, and she and her sisters Assata (foil) and Nzinga (saber) have been with the team since they were freshmen. As they head into their senior year, the triplets are athletes whom the coaching staff can count on to show the many younger fencers the way things are done.
Equally critical will be Chen, who came up with key points in tough matches against Columbia, Livingston and West Essex and did so again this Wednesday against Millburn.
The boys side was a little harder-hit with the graduation bug, and many weapons will have especially young groups.
With épées, for example, A and B strip will be populated by a junior in Kaplan and sophomore Garda.
Both Kaplan and Garda saw action last season, including during the NJIFA Squad Tournament, and that experience will help a lot as they step into key roles this year.
Whereas épée has the most holes to fill, foil has the most bodies.
The weapon had multiple sophomores last year who should see success this season, with juniors Jordan Sawadogo and Alexander Brown getting the most work.
Saber has two of the few seniors on the boys side, with Buccino and Eaves looking to finish their Mounties careers strong.
Last season saw the Mounties take over the gym at Glenfield Middle School, but COVID-19 restrictions made that space not a good choice, so the team moved back to its old haunt at the George Innes Annex. The freshman building at the high school has two gyms, which allows the team to field both boys and girls dual meets at the same time.
The challenge, according to Holtz, is that coaches have to choose one gym and stay there. Normally, Holtz might watch the girls for a while, then hustle to see the boys. This year it’s either one or the other.
He isn’t worried, though, and knows his coaching staff can handle it. He doesn’t need to be everywhere at once.
“I have a great staff,” he said. “We’re all really passionate about the school, and we have three alums on the staff. So I trust them all and I think the kids are in good hands.”