by Andrew Garda
There have been a ton of changes for the Montclair High School fencing team as they head into the 2019-2020 season.
First, they’ve moved to District 3, where they will face local rivals like Columbia, Livingston — who will now host the District tournaments — and crosstown rival Montclair Kimberley Academy.
Then, they moved their practice and dual meets from the high school to Glenfield Middle School, which affords them more room for both practice and meets.
Of course, they also have to fill the gaps left by departing seniors from last season’s team.
Luckily, as has been the case quite often in the past, both the Mounties girls and boys aren’t having to reboot so much as reload.
According to head coach Ed Chang, most of the weapons have at least two locked in fencers on the ‘A’ and ‘B’ strips, and are just looking for a consistent presence on the ‘C’ strip.
Chang, who coaches the sabre fencers along with Julie Carlsen, Shakil Uddin (foil) and newly added épée coach Donovan Holtz may have lost some fencers, but there is a lot of talent to choose from.
That’s especially critical for a girls team which reached historic heights last year when they took second in the NJSIAA Fencing team tournament finals.
Girls sabre returns Grace Van Atta and Grace Edgington, who will form the core of this weapon for Chang.
“Grace and Grace are just phenomenal athletes and fencers and have been students of the sport for longer than they’ve been here at the high school,” Chang said during a recent practice. “So, that team dynamic really worked out last year. [Now] they’re seniors so we’re looking for them to give one final push.”
The ‘C’ strip was held down by Emily Hand in 2018-19, and Chang said she’ll be hard to replace.
“Emily Hand was a very reliable ‘C’ strip [last year]. She was very consistent at what she did and she did a great job kind of anchoring and pulling the team together that way,” Chang said. “We’ve still got Grace and Grace, they’re getting better and putting in their time, but we’re looking for that third person to really hold us together like Emily did last year.”
Like sabre, the foil squad returns two out of three starting fencers.
“Georgia [Chen]’s returning, Assata [Mutakabbir] is returning, so we’ve got two out of three,” Chang said.
Still, as with the sabres, the missing link is someone the foils will miss.
“Our ‘A’ strip, Lila [Zimbalist] has gone on to Brown, where she’s doing great, but it’s the same kind of thing,” Chang said. “Georgia was always the next one up, so we are looking for her to perform.”
Chang said that Chen should be more than up to the task, especially as he looks around the rest of the district.
“Looking at the landscape and how other people have graduated fencers as well, I think Georgia is going to be a really good fit for our top spot,” said Chang. “And then Assata has been going to club and changing clubs and finding a fit, and getting experience so Assata is doing really well [too].”
The girls do have one weapon completely set, as the épées will bring back all three fencers from last season.
Clara Mendoza and Amira Mutakabbir have been with the team for the last three years, including in 2018 years ago when the épée girls won the NJSIAA squad state championship.
Last season, they were joined by first time épée fencer Katie Mathis.
“[She] really came out like a firecracker for us, and for a first-time fencer, getting on the strip for the first time, she did a lot,” Chang said. “In offseason she was training and she’s been getting a lot of experience, so we’re looking to see a different level of polish, but the same level of competition because she was always a competitor, and that’s what drove her in her fencing.”
All three épée fencers are juniors, so this has the look of a unit that could really light up fencing strips for the next two years.
For boys épée, Brian Roseboro and Benjamin Sherwin may be gone, but Chang said that just means more opportunity for everyone else.
“I looked at all of them and I told them there are no more ‘household names.’ So, they all have to step up and compete at the highest level they can for themselves.’” Chang said. “We’ve got a very even boys épée squad. They just have to compete at the highest level they can, and they will eventually find a matchup that’s going to work in their favor.”
While the épée unit is wide open, boys foil is more set.
“We’ve got Will Polen who is returning, he’s our veteran fencer,” Chang said. “But we also have Daniel Moroze, and Alex Brown, who was our freshman last year. He’s coming right back to us and competing with us.”
Finally, the boys sabres squad looks very much like the girls side does.
“Nathan [Weiss] and Charlie [Blim]have been with us since freshman year, they’ve been practically starting since freshman year,” he said. “They too are kind of the anchors, the experienced veteran fencers. And they’ve been competing and practicing in the offseason as well.”
The ‘C’ strip is the question mark here, but as he does with all the other groups for both genders, Chang is not worried.
“We’ve got a lot of really good ‘C’ spot fencers that I’m interested to see the rotation,” he said. “Guys who we can get into that spot to really make our formula click.”
MHS had their first dual meet at their new Glenfield home Tuesday night, Jan. 7, against Millburn.
The girls picked up right where they left off, topping the Millers, 17-7, while the boys struggled en route to an 18-9 defeat.
Originally, the first meet of the year was supposed to be Dec. 20, but scheduling issues and construction at Newark Academy scuttled that. While the layoff was disappointing, Chang said this early in the season the focus is more on evaluating and improving than wins and losses.
“Improvement is always our goal, but I mean we also have a standard to uphold in terms of competing at a high level, making it through our district and making it into the state competitions. That’s ultimately where we want to be.”
He knows that won’t be easy in a new district.
“There will be a lot of tough teams that were not in our district before, that are in our district this year,” he said. “So, it’s going to be a fight to get through those things.”
The Mounties will get an indication of where they stand among the state’s best this weekend, when they will travel to Drew University in Madison for the 40th annual Cetrulo and Santelli tournaments, which feature all competing varsity teams throughout the state.
The girls will take part in the Santelli Saturday, Jan. 11, beginning at 8 a.m., while the boys cross swords in the Cetrulo Sunday, Jan. 12, also at 8 a.m.