Despite the long hiatus from in-person activities, the Muhlenberg fencing club is still going strong. Deep in the bowels of Memorial Hall, the revamped team works on sharpening their skills during weekly held practices.
With the fall 2021 semester only just beginning and students still getting acclimated to their classes, turnout for the club’s Thursday evening practices from 5:00-6:30 p.m. has been inconsistent. Despite this, club president Noah Katz ‘23 remains optimistic that their weekly attendance will soon become stable. “We have had some meetings of up to 12 and some with far fewer. Once people get suited with their classes we will likely have a better estimate as to what attendance will look like for the semester,” said Katz.
In addition, Katz carries with him a similarly positive outlook when it comes to thinking about the upcoming year as a whole. “I am looking forward to having regular meetings with the team so that we can get to a level where any member can bout against any other member and feel confident while doing so,” he said.
The building of that confidence within each member of the team is vital, especially if they seek to participate in competitive tournaments like they were on the verge of doing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. For Katz, staying in the moment and slowly reaching the point where everyone feels as though they are ready for this big stage is his main concern.
“Right before the College sent students home we were just about to reach out to other colleges and fencing groups in the area. Currently, our focus is to get everyone to a place where they feel comfortable competing in a tournament-like environment,” said Katz.
As with all sports, practice makes perfect, and sometimes that means sticking to the basics. Working with head coach Paul McAndrew in the early stages of the season, Katz is aware of how important it is to refine the fundamental techniques.
“Right now we are going through basic footwork, attacks, and parries with all members. Even for those who are experienced, you can never practice the basics too much,” Katz said.
McAndrew, who has been fencing since 1969, has provided the team with some of the physical tools to succeed in the sport. He has also shared with them some of his wisdom and insight from his years of experience. “Paul often reminds us that the best defense in fencing is not any kind of fancy blade work, but to just simply step out of the range of your opponent’s blade. Paul also tells the new members that fencing is a sport you can keep with you for your entire life,” Katz said.
Offering the young team such support, encouragement and advice is a huge point of emphasis for McAndrew, especially during their practice time. “I often stop the action to advise, suggest or correct so the fencers can learn and improve,” said McAndrew.
Certainly, McAndrew has a wealth of experience and knowledge to pass on to Muhlenberg’s rising fencing stars. However, much like the many students at ‘Berg trying the sport for the first time, he was once a beginner himself.
“In the fall of 1969, as a freshman at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, NJ, I saw a notice that the fencing team was looking for members, no experience necessary. I had played high school football as a sub and, in a limited capacity, I ran track. I started attending practices and soon after the captain of the team announced we had a new coach: Csaba Elthes… [Elthes] was a demanding but tremendous coach and instilled the fundamentals of fencing in me and the enjoyment of a competitive sport,” McAndrew said.
With all that he learned from his first days of fencing at the age of 18 and four years of Division I competition, McAndrew served as an instructor in Sellersville, Pennsylvania for 25 years. This deep connection to the sport of fencing means that the team is in good hands.
Even though in his eyes formal competition may be a ways away, McAndrew is excited to bring on the fall semester, especially coming out of the pandemic. “We had a solid core group of fencers and interest was growing, as was the talent levels, when COVID hit us in March 2020 and we of course suspended everything. I am looking to this season and into the spring to bring awareness that the team exists, it’s open to all that are interested and, most importantly. experience isn’t needed,” he said.
While some might think that after such an extended hiatus of in-person clubs and sports practices that players would need to shed some serious rust, Katz shares that fencing has become second nature for him.
“Once you have been doing anything long enough it becomes impossible to forget. Fencing has become like that for me. After the first practice it all comes back,” he said.
To reach that instinctive nature with the sport and a whole lot more, McAndrew encourages those who may be even the slightest bit interested in fencing, come out and give it a shot.
“The potential is limited only by the students who come out. Fencing is the perfect sport: we wear gloves, we wear masks and if anyone gets within six feet we poke them to keep them away,” McAndrew said.
“Seriously, my experience in high school and college was an extracurricular activity or sport [which] always helped [with] my grades and overall experience. It gave me an outlet away from classwork, made my schedule tighter (meaning greater attention to the work I needed to get done) and it broadened my social network.”