MHS foil fencer Georgia Chen reacts to a critical score during Montclair’s 15-12 NJSIAA win over Chatham on Feb. 6, 2020.

by Andrew Garda

Montclair High School’s girls fencing team continued its incredible season with another win on Thursday, Feb. 6, as the No. 2 seeded Mounties beat a tough No. 18-seeded Chatham team 15-12 to advance in the 2019-2020 NJSIAA Girls Fencing Championships.

While the MHS saber and èpeè squads consistently beat their opposite numbers, it was foil which turned the tide late in the match. With both teams tied at 11 due in large part to an excellent effort by Chatham’s foils, Georgia Chen stepped onto the strip.

Chen had two close losses under her belt, but attacked her opponent early and often, scoring devastating touch after devastating touch on her way to a 5-1 win, and giving the Mounties a 12-11 edge.

Chatham’s last foil rallied and evened it up again at 12, but with the MHS èpeès coming up, the team looked to be in good shape.

First Katie Mathis scored her first win of the night with an excellent performance characterized by patience and pinpoint accuracy to make it 13-12.

Then, Amira Mutakabbir, who had dominated her opponents in her previous two matches, stepped to the strip. The two fencers traded blows, in a match where momentum swayed back and forth, but in the end, Mutakabbir scored the critical touch to win 5-4, propelling MHS to 14 points, and a win. While the teams still played out the last strip — with Clara Mendoza winning her third bout—Montclair had punched its ticket to the quarterfinal round.

Chen’s win was actually the second that the Montclair foil fencers had snagged during the meet, as Assata Mutakabbir had won earlier in the evening.

For the MHS coaching staff, it was a credit to the toughness of their team.

“You know, that’s just a testament to the fight of the girls,” head coach Ed Chang said after the meet. “That’s what we work every year for, every day. Keep working. You lose? That’s fine. But you got to be ready for the next one, and as long as they were ready for the next one, we were able to steal those two and get it.”

Chatham is a very tough, very deep team whose strength is their foil squad, but who also has potent fencers at èpeè and saber as well.

Montclair’s Katie Mathis celebrates winning her final bout during Montclair’s NJSIAA win over Chatham.

“We came into this knowing that foil was going to be tough for us,” said Chang. “We knew that we needed to kind of steal a couple of wins from foil to keep us honest, and just make sure that we’re on the right track.”

The Mounties’ win continues to show why the MHS girls specifically, and the program in general, is among the top in the state.

The saber group, comprised of Grace Van Atta, Grace Edgington, Nzingha Mutkabbir, and Meg McClenahan, took first in their class at the District 3 Tournament on Jan. 19 and continued their strong fencing on Thursday.

Van Atta was perfect with three wins, with Edginton scoring a pair as well and Nzingha Mutkabbir, who was fencing “C” strip, notching one.

It was a similarly strong performance for the èpeè squad, who also won the District title on Jan. 19. The group, populated by Clara Mendoza, Katie Mathis, Amira Mutakabbir and Maria Linietsky, has been very potent this season, led by Mendoza and Amira Mutakabbir.

Both were perfect Thursday, with Mathis adding one win to the total.

Foil may have struggled, but when it counted, the girls stepped up and grabbed victories the team needed.

Montclair overcame a Chatham team which utilizes what is called “stacking” meaning they put their better fencers on a lower strip in order to try and maneuver them into facing “lesser” fencers late in the meet, when they will be more tired.

Home teams must rotate their fencers, so for example, the “A” strip fencer for the home team faces the other “A” strip fencer just once and battles the “B” and “C” fencers in subsequent rounds.

MHS junior Amira Mutakabbir celebrates with her team after scoring match point against Chatham on Feb. 6, 2020.

Montclair does not do this, as the coaching staff believes in creating a balanced lineup and faith that no matter who their fencers face, they will work hard.

“I mean for us, the philosophy is, it doesn’t matter what slot you come in on, you are going to work hard every time,” Chang explained. “You’re going to do your best and your win is going to come because you fought, not because we shifted the lineup.”

Now the Mounties await their next opponent, as No. 7-seeded Columbia hosts No. 10-seeded Teaneck tonight.

For Chang and his team, who the opponent is won’t change what MHS does to prepare.

“We talk about little mental preparation,” Chang said. “The girls are preparing physically in the same way. We’re going to go through a lot of the same drills, we’re going to go through a lot of the same focuses. We talked a little bit about, “Okay, maybe we lost out on certain aspects of the meet today that we have to kind of tune-up.”

If the winner of tonight’s match is Columbia, Chang said the Mounties are very familiar with what they bring to the strip.

“Something like Columbia, it’s almost ninety percent mental, because we fence them so many times,” he said. “And you know, the last time we did win against them in a dual meet, but it was it was also very close. So we have to know, because Columbia is a is a hard-competing team, it’s not about who’s better or who has more skill. It’s who’s going to come that day ready to fight it out, because every time we fence Columbia it’s a dogfight.”

Whichever team wins Friday night, the Mounties appear to be well-prepared to face them at home in the Glenfield Middle School gym on Wednesday, Feb. 12.