by Andrew Garda

It’s controlled chaos during fencing practice for the Montclair High School team. Three disciplines — épée, foil and saber — spread across both gym spaces in the George Inness Annex, where freshman students are housed during the day. It’s a big squad, all told, with numbers that have been swollen in part due to a successful Middle School program and the team’s overall success.

With so many kids — and many new to the sport — the coaching staff is constantly moving the practice along, herding fencers from footwork drills in one gym to practice strips in another, all while making sure form and technique are being executed properly.

Luckily, coach Ed Chang said, he has veteran fencers who can pitch in.

“We have a couple of kids we are leaning on,” he said while getting his saber fencers set up at a recent practice. “We have really good leadership.”

Some of that leading includes making sure the less experienced fencers are doing what they are supposed to.

Just like sophomore saber fencer Grace Van Atta does, with a group of girls on the practice strip. She faces each one and while the talented Van Atta could easily beat them all, she takes her time, holds back and makes sure that each girl is attacking or defending the way they are supposed to.

After each practice bout, Van Atta takes off her helmet and walks her opponent through how to correct mistakes in their execution.

Sophomore Grace Van Atta (far, middle) spars with another saber fencer. Van Atta is one of the keys to the Mounties success with the saber this year.
Sophomore Grace Van Atta (far, middle) spars with another saber fencer. Van Atta is one of the keys to the Mounties success with the saber this year.

Having fencers who can teach as well as fence is a huge advantage for the coaches, and was in part some of the reason for how Chang approached the Middle School program last fall. He wanted to give his fencers a chance to learn how to coach, how to teach and how to communicate.

The bonus for the Mounties fencing team is they now have multiple members who can serve as helpers and enhance an already rigorous plan.

All of it doesn’t matter much, though, if the team isn’t putting what they learn into practice in their matches.

Luckily, that hasn’t been an issue for either the boys or girls teams.

The girls are undefeated so far, with four wins, while the boys have just one loss as the team heads into the first league meet this weekend.

Considering the youth of the team and the overall turnover, the early success is worth noting.

“We graduated a good chunk of our seniors,” Chang said. “For example, our girls épée squad — our championship squad — graduated two out of three.”

Amina Troupe is back, “but we have to figure out how we’re going to work with the new squad, and who we’ve got coming up,” he said. “So far, so good.”

The épée squads, both for girls and boys, are the strength of the team, and Chang said they were the most consistent unit. Saber is the youngest group, but Chang said the girls had a couple of returning fencers, which should bolster the unit. Foil has been the biggest issue in the past, Chang said, both in terms of consistency and overall experience. And in the past, while the épée and saber fencers have spent time working together or in clubs this offseason, in general foil fencers haven’t done as much.

This season that has changed.

“We’re excited to have a couple of young foils who have club experience before,” Chang said. “We’re going to see how they do in terms of what they offer our team.”

While the team will look to the new faces to contribute, at the end of the day, it will be the veterans, like Van Atta and Troupe, who make the difference. Rounding out the key girls fencers, are captain Zariah Torkpo and Lila Zimbalist, both of whom fence with foils.  

On the boys side, Ben Sherwan, Brian Roseboro and Alex Moyse are three strong returning épée fencers who have been successful so far this season. Meanwhile, Lee Meyers will be the key to success for the boys foil group.

Each fencing discipline brings its own challenges.

When people think of fencing, they generally think of foils. A light weapon with a small guard, the foil is a point weapon, which means a fencer can score only with the tip of the sword. The target area for points are only the chest and the back.

MHS saber coach Ed Chang gets some of the members of the boys team ready for a practice match.
MHS saber coach Ed Chang gets some of the members of the boys team ready for a practice match.

The épée is similar, in that you can score a point only in a target area with the tip. But unlike a foil, an épée can score points anywhere and everywhere on an opponent’s body, from head to toe. Length matters a lot with épée duels as does waiting for the right moment.

“Épée is a lot about patience,” Chang explained. “Waiting and figuring out what your opponent is going to do. And then the last few seconds there is a lot of action.”

The discipline Chang coaches most directly is saber. In this discipline, any part of the sword can score a hit, but the target area is only half of what an épée sword can score a point on. A saber hit counts only when it strikes from a fencer’s waist up.

“It’s based off a cavalry weapon so it’s more of a slashing or cutting motion as opposed to poking,” Chang said.

While épée takes the most discipline in terms of waiting to strike, all three techniques require patience. One of Chang’s biggest challenges is getting the younger and less experienced fencers to look before they leap. Not only that, but they are often too stiff and inflexible.

“A lot of them — especially the boys — just want to bash things,” Chang said. He also said the girls tend to be more willing to wait and show patience, as well as just generally relax. It makes a big difference.

“A lot of the boys will lose to some of the girls because the girls are more relaxed,” he said.

Despite all the hurdles, this team seems poised to continue the success it had last year.

“We’re jelling,” Chang said. “Our first big meet was a quad meet in mid-December, which got three or four of our conference meets down in one day.” The regular season finishes at the end of January, with a big district meet at Montclair High School.

That will be the biggest test yet for the Mounties.

“We’re a very competitive conference,” Chang said. “Our districts will be held here on January 28, in the big gym. That will be all the schools from the district and we’ll see how we place after that and where we go into the postseason.”

Chang and his team have high hopes for that meet, and feel there is plenty of talent among the Mounties fencers to make a splash in postseason meets.

“We’re looking at maybe girls saber, both of our épée squads,” Chang said. “And we’ll see what our girls foil can do, because I think they can really do some good things.”