by Andrew Garda
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night — nor even the coronavirus pandemic — can keep the Montclair High School fencing team from competition in 2021.
While the Mounties were most concerned with COVID-19, it’s been three snowstorms that have hampered, but not stopped, their season. The Monday, Feb. 22, bout against Newark Academy was the latest to feel the wrath of Mother Nature, but as has been the case with all weather-related issues, the coaching staff, Athletic Director Patrick Scarpello and the opposing school were able to come together and reschedule the match, in this case to Monday, March 1.
The shifting schedule hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of the team, especially its core group of seniors.
It’s those athletes who have led both teams to some big wins, especially for the boys, who beat Columbia High School for the first time in five years with a tight 14-13 victory on Feb. 23.
While some athletes decided to take the year off due to COVID-19, head coach Donovan Holtz said the seniors who stayed have been a huge help, especially his captains — George Buccino, Georgia Chen, Amira Mutakabbir and Daniel Moroze.
“George, Georgia, Amira and Dan have all been helping me, with communications and things like that,” Holtz said. “Because just with all the protocols, even at practice, I’m only in one gym. And at a meet, I’m kind of more or less on one side [of the room] or another. We’re even [driving] in separate buses. I’ve been leaning on them a lot to communicate what the expectations are, what I want from them and things like that. They’ve been doing a really nice job of getting the message across.”
It’s not just the captains, either, Holtz said. The rest of the seniors — Jude Eaves, Kirsty Hand, Ellary Jenkins, Maria Linietsky, Assata Mutakabbir and Nzingha Mutakabbir — all have contributed both on and off the strip in helping Holtz and the other coaches manage the team.
Eaves, Linietsky and Assata and Nzingha Mutakabbir are all starters and critical to their team’s success, but Holtz stressed that he got contributions from every senior regardless of their spot on the team.
“Kirsty Hand and Ellary Jenkins are seniors on the team but just not starters,” he said. “Kirsty won her only bout of the season 5-0. They both stuck around even though they wouldn’t be able to go to meets and there haven’t been many practices. They’re good teammates and represent the essence of what the Montclair High School fencing team is.”
On the strip, the girls have found the most success, with a 4-1 record heading into a Feb. 23 first half of a home-and-home with Columbia (results after press time).
Chen has led the way for the foil squad, putting together an impressive 12-3 record, one which is shared by Assata Mutakabbir. Several other fencers have stepped into the role of “C” Strip behind them, but most often it was junior Sophie Miller, who has a 6-4 record.
For the epees, Amira Mutakabbir leads with a near-perfect 13-1 record. Linietsky (6-8) and sophomore Kali Tolles (6-9) round out the girls starting epee squad.
Holtz has really been impressed with his “B” and “C” strips, especially Linietsky, who stepped into the “B” strip position this year.
“I think last year she was my first alternate,” he said. “So she’s moved all the way up to “B” and she’s been quite strong. She’s either winning or losing really close. She’s been a pleasant surprise.”
Sophomore Emily Dia has a 6-9 record, with Nzinga Mutakabbir (7-8) and sophomore Olivia Law (2-12) rounding out the discipline.
Overall, Holtz said the girls team has performed really well, with one squad or another stepping up at just the right time.
“Some meets, it’s been foil, some meets it’s been saber,” he said. “For some meets it’s been epee.”
It’s been a little rougher going on the boys side, but considering how young the players are, the team has done well.
Of the starters and alternates, nine of the 12 are juniors, sophomores or freshmen, with five of the nine being underclassmen.
It’s a bit of a rebuilding year for the Mountie boys, but they have shown a great deal of skill and improvement over the course of the year. The win over Columbia showed how far they have come.
The seniors have been balancing teaching the younger fencers the ropes with putting in the time on their own skills.
Captain Daniel Moroze has had a great senior year with the foil, putting together a 10-5 record, second only to junior Alexander Brown’s 14-1.
The two of them dominating the strip makes room for sophomore Caleb Blim (4-7) and freshman Charles Moroze (1-3) to get some seasoning, knowing the other two fencers were providing a cushion to take the pressure off a little.
The elder Moroze continues to show his foil teammates how to fight on the strip, while also being able to work with them off it to give them the benefit of his experience.
In saber, senior Buccino leads with a 7-8 record, with Eaves right behind him with a 6-8 mark. Junior Sam Zichelli (5-5) usually holds the last spot, with freshman Mitchell O’Keefe at first alternate with a 5-1 record.
Boys epee has the potential to be very intriguing over the course of the next two to three years. There are no seniors on the squad at all, as it is composed of two juniors and two sophomores.
Junior Jordan Sawadogo has put together a 5-5 record after shifting over from the foil squad, and his transition has seemed seamless for the most part despite differences in target areas, speed and strategy between the two disciplines.
Fellow junior Alejandro Kaplan has also fenced well, putting together a 4-5 record to date.
Sophomore Simon Garda has been steadily improving this season, his first on the varsity, though he had experience in several bouts last season. Over the course of the last two meets (prior to the team’s bout against Columbia Tuesday, Feb. 23) he has lost just two bouts, going 4-2 against McNair and West Essex.
Junior epee Beckett Yee has also improved over the course of the season as he has gained more experience on the strip.
While many things can change, there’s a good chance these four will be the core group of epee fencers for the boys next year, with Garda around for another year beyond that.
As the Mounties close out the season, they find themselves in an interesting position, with an opportunity to send their senior class off with some big wins, while also gaining important experience for the younger members of the team.
The road will still be rough – both MHS boys and girls fell to CHS on Wednesday, Feb. 25 in their second meeting of the year – but whatever the results on the strip, Mountie fencing has had another great year.
The print article on Feb. 26, 2021 said Beckett Yee was a sophomore, but he is correctly labeled as a junior in this piece.
The author of this article, Andrew Garda, is the father of fencer Simon Garda.