Montclair High School girls fencers take aim at state championships in play-in round
The Montclair High School girls and boys fencing teams fell short of their goal Sunday, to get an automatic bid to reach the state finals in one of the toughest districts in the state.
The girls came in third in the team standings in the District 3 meet and still have a shot to reach the state finals in the play-in round on Feb. 13. The girls finished with 39 points, four points behind Columbia, which grabbed second and an automatic state finals bid.
The boys finished fifth and did not qualify for the play-in.
Going into the tournament, both teams were expecting to finish in the top two positions because of their stellar regular season performance. The girls ended the regular season at 7-1, while the boys were 7-3.
To qualify outright for the state finals, the teams had to finish in one of the top two positions in their district. Third-place teams make the play-in round.
Montclair’s coaches knew the competition would be tough.
“I was hoping to qualify outright for boys and girls, but I’ll take it,” Donovan Holtz, the saber and epee coach, said. “The team is young, and next year they’ll better understand what to expect.”
Jared Pershad, Montclair’s foil coach, said that it was a tough challenge coming into the districts, held at North Hunterdon High School.
"We play in the hardest district in the state,” Pershad said. “We’ve got Columbia and Livingston in our district. Two very tough, historically very good schools. We basically have to beat one of them out at districts.”
The boys did not finish high enough to compete in the play-in but came very close. Montclair finished with 43 points, three behind third-place Newark Academy, which received a spot in the play-in round.
However, the season continues for Montclair’s best individual fencers. The individual state fencing championships will be held on Feb. 26 at Bernards High School.
Five Mounties qualified for the individual tournament: sophomore Nile Brunson (epee), sophomore Sela Feig (saber) and freshman Mya Spears (saber) on the girls side, while a pair of juniors, Lucas Gilson (saber) and Mitchell O'Keefe (saber), qualified on the boys side.
The girls team finished a dominant 2022-23 regular season on Thursday, Feb. 2, with a 15-12 victory over Oak Knolls. Their lone loss this season was to Livingston, which won the state district meet. For the Montclair boys, two of their three defeats were by a single point.
Despite the impressive records, Holtz had even higher standards for his teams. He feels Montclair could have been undefeated if everything had broken its way.
“Columbia beat our boys team because we were missing a person,” he said. “We were missing a person in two of our three losses. We were missing starters, that just shows how narrow it is.”
Pershad agreed, adding that when Montclair loses, it has more to do with mental aspects than ability. “The losses we’ve taken aren’t because of a lack of skill,” he said. “It’s just been for a lack of head space in a moment.”
Montclair’s fencers have reached a high skill level by practicing both with the team and at private fencing clubs. Holtz used sophomore Diego Aguirre (epee) as an example of the team’s rigorous work ethic.
“Last year, I told Diego that he didn’t know anything about fencing, but I also told him that he could travel with us and keep score,” Holtz said. “He learned everything he could learn. Then, he started training at a club three times a week.
“At the beginning of this season, he was the second-best in his weapon. This is the path to get where you want. If you want this, you need to put in work.”
The team captains believe COVID gave them a chance to improve their technique. Senior Simon Garda, the boys captain, knew he wanted to stick with fencing after his freshman season was cut short.
“COVID gave me a lot of extra time,” Garda said. “I did a little bit of work at home each day. Literally, I was in my room just practicing my footwork. I couldn’t really go out and fence anyone, but there were still things I could do to improve.”
Senior Olivia Law, the girls captain, said, “Other than school, fencing was the only thing I did when I left the house.”
Even the underclassmen have dedicated countless hours to fencing.
“We have a middle school clinic where we try to get kids into fencing early,” Pershad said. “The middle school clinic gifted us some pretty talented fencers this year. Coco Brody is starting as a freshman because of the work she did.”
Ultimately, Garda believes the hardships of COVID made this year’s team stronger: “The people who wanted to stay in the sport continued fencing. It’s almost like our pool of fencers concentrated a bit, and we saw the truly dedicated fencers really stand out.”
The biggest accomplishment of the Mountie’s regular season was their performance at the Cetrulo and Santelli tournaments, held on Jan. 21 and 22. The tournaments are a long-standing fixture of high school fencing in New Jersey. All state schools, both public and private, have a chance to compete against each other before they formally battle for state titles.
Montclair’s coaches felt their teams were under-ranked heading into the Cetrulo and Santelli tournaments.
“Walking into the tournament, our boys team was ranked 29th,” Pershad said. “It’s a slight. Where did they seed the girls’ team?”
“We were 25th,” Holtz replied.
The girls team finished fourth out of 50 high schools, while the boys finished seventh out of 56.
The boys’ best weapon was the saber, in which the team placed second. The squad’s saber fencers, juniors Gilson, O’Keefe and Gavin Burr, were a combined 30-12 in duels at the tournament.
On the girls team, the top weapon also was the saber. Spears, Feig and sophomore Gabriela Kaplan won the girls saber division outright. They won 34 duels and only dropped five. All three are underclassmen.
Law shed a light on how talented the girls saber squad is. “I can’t really help them in terms of fencing,” she said. “Some of them, like Mya [Spears], have been fencing longer than I have.”
Instead of teaching them new techniques, Law works to build up the team culture.
“What I can do is just make sure they are motivated, make sure that they’re ready to fight, and they’re energized,” she said. “I’m focusing more on the sportsmanship aspect within fencing.”