Mountie foil fencer Assata Mutakabbir lunges at her opponent during Montclair’s 15-12 NJSIAA tournament win on Feb. 13.

by Andrew Garda

The Montclair High School girls fencing team continued its NJSIAA run with a tight win over Columbia on Feb. 12, defeating the Cougars, 15-12.

It was the second close win for the No. 2-seeded Mounties over the No. 7-seeded Columbia this season, with the previous match a 14-13 win.

As was the case in their 15-12 first-round win over Chatham on Feb. 6, Montclair’s foils once again stepped up in a big moment. With the tough task of facing Columbia’s Zander Rhodes — a foil fencer with Olympic aspirations and ability — the foil squad of Georgie Chen, Assata Mutakabbir and Sophie Miller knew they would have to rise to the challenge.

Led by Chen’s two wins over Columbia’s Vivienne Clarke and Rin Ito, foil did what they needed to in snatching three wins.

Those victories ended up being the difference in the match.

Head coach Ed Chang said no matter who his team faces on the strip, they remain calm and carry the same approach. That way, even when they have to battle someone like Rhodes, they don’t become discouraged and are still prepared to face the next fencer.

“The first two rounds that Xander fenced, we got one touch on her, we got two touches on her,” he said. “It wasn’t a complete blowout in any sense. So, it’s the idea that we have an every-touch mentality, every-bout mentality. We take the victories when they’re there and we work hard regardless of what the result is.”

MHS foil fencer Georgia Rhodes faces off against Columbia’s Zander Rhodes, a potential Olympian during MHS’ NJSIAA win on Thursday, Feb. 13. Despite the opponent, head coach Ed Chang said they always use a “one touch, one bout” approach.

Chen said that coming into the meet, their expectations weren’t that they would beat Rhodes. Instead, they just wanted to make it tough on her.

”We go in knowing we’re going to work hard and we’re going to do our best,” she said after the meet. “We’re going to make it hard for her to win. We’re not going to let her win easy, just because we think she’s going to win. We work hard every single time and we treat her like every other opponent.”

The team came out to the strip hot, with the sabre squad of Grace Van Atta, Nzinga Mutkabbir and Grace Edgington cruising to three wins.

But then foil lost all three of their bouts, and the épée group of Amira Mutakabbir, Clara Mendoza and Katie Mathis dropped two. 

“We came out early, and sabre got us so worked up. And foiI think, foil probably could have pulled out maybe one more win in that first round, but we got so worked up that they got so energized that foil might have rushed things a little bit, épée might have rushed things a little bit in that first round,” Chang said.

The coaches and captains got the team settled down though, and the next round saw the Mounties surge ahead with another sabre sweep, the first of Chen’s wins, and two épée wins from Amira Mutakabbir and Mathis.

Still, after two rounds the MHS lead was just 10-8, and nothing was assured. 

Columbia’s sabres grabbed a win over Nzinga Mutkabbir, though Edgington and Van Atta both won their bouts to give Montclair a 12-9 lead. 

Rhodes started off the third round of foil bouts by beating a tenacious Miller to make it 12-10, but then Chen won her second match of the day, a 5-0 victory where she was untouched by her opponent to give Montclair a 13-10 lead.

Assata Mutkabbir then stepped onto the strip with a chance to secure the win for Montclair. As much as she had to feel the anticipation from her teammates, she fought a patient, smart bout that she won 5-1, giving Montclair a 14-10 victory.

The épée squad rounded things out with a win and two losses, their last round notable for the debut of freshman Kali Tolles fencing in her first official bout.

Mountie sabre fencer Grace Edgington exults after winning a bout during Montclair’s NJSIAA Tournament win over Columbia on Feb. 13.

For Chang, while it’s worth noting that foil has played a pivotal role two meets in a row, more critical is what it says about how balanced the team is. 

“I mean we also have to take a minute to consider the idea of fencing as a team sport. Especially in high school, we promote that aspect of it, [which] they don’t get usually anywhere else. They don’t get that at fencing club, they don’t get that fencing nationally. They don’t get this kind of team mentality,” Chang said.

Columbia is a talented team, and Rhodes is a tremendous fencer. At the end of the day though, Montclair proved to have a deeper pool of talent, even if they didn’t have anyone quite at Rhodes’ level.

“So that’s how I look at the foil wins today, and that’s how I look at all of our wins leading up to this point,” Chang said. “We are trying our best to build a complete team that gets the wins we’re supposed to get, the victories that are crucial to us. And it is very dramatic when foil comes through like that, but for us, it’s just a matter of staying consistent.”

Montclair will continue to strive for that consistency this Thursday, Feb. 20, when they take on No. 3-seeded Montgomery, who just overcame a determined Bernards team with a 16-11 win. 

Like Montclair, Montgomery hasn’t lost this season, including a win over top-seeded Ridge.

The match will be held at Glenfield Middle School, beginning at 6:30pm.