It may not be the first sport you think of, but here at Muhlenberg College, the art of competitive fencing has quite a rich history. Over their years as a club sport, they have had their fair share of ups and downs. From almost being eliminated from the entirety of Muhlenberg’s collegiate sports, to being a full-time competitive club on campus.
Muhlenberg fencing got its start way back in 1954 and began as a young and ambitious intercollegiate sport. Comprised of 11 freshmen and sophomores who had never fenced prior to entering ‘Berg, the group was led and trained by Dr. Andrew “Andy” Erskine, professor of English, speech and drama. A native of Philadelphia, Dr. Erskine managed to teach and coach Muhlenberg fencing for a remarkable 36 years. While he and the Mules may not have had their first win as a team until their second year of competition with a 16-11 victory over the Stallion Fencing Club of Long Island, the group remained enthusiastic and committed. Even though they had nine returning swordsmen from the previous year, they were still quite inexperienced, and this win was exactly what they needed.
Even with that single victory during the ‘54-’55 season, the Mules would eventually reach the M.A.S.C.A.C. (Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference) fencing tournament hosted by Johns Hopkins. Ultimately, they would come away with the fifth place prize. From their inaugural season to their second, Muhlenberg fencing certainly took tremendous leaps in the right direction.
In their fourth year of intercollegiate play, in 1956-57, the men failed to accumulate a single win. These struggles would come to a head over twenty years later in 1980, when the Board of Trustees considered not only the elimination of lacrosse as an intercollegiate sport, but also the elimination of fencing. Speaking on behalf of the administration, Dr. Harold Stenger, former dean and vice president of Muhlenberg College, noted that the matter of elimination had actually been discussed three years earlier. He cited that money was not the issue; rather, the concern was “mounting teams reflective of Muhlenberg College.” In essence, he was referring to the team’s lack of a respectable record. For Stenger, it was also important to “do the sport right” and not present a lackluster effort. Inadequate staffing or a lack of coaches was also a reason for discontinuation, according to Dean Stenger.
After getting wind of this potential elimination, the students of Muhlenberg College rallied behind both the fencing and lacrosse teams to retain them as official collegiate sports. This student dissatisfaction led to a petition that was signed by over one thousand students. In addition to the petition, there was a clear boost in participation and success of both programs. Ultimately, both teams remained on campus and continued to see growth and success.
Today, although it may not be an official inter-collegiate sport, the fencing club is alive and thriving, with 10-12 members that attend practices on a regular basis in the racquetball courts of Memorial Hall.
During a regular practice day, the team “always [starts] out by doing a warm up and some stretches because fencing is a sport based off of explosive speed, so it can be very easy to pull a muscle,” according to Noah Katz ‘23, the fencing club’s current president.
Fortunately for Katz and the rest of the group, practices are made possible because of the gear and equipment that has been preserved through the years. “Fencing is a sport that requires lots of equipment. You need a jacket, mask, glove, blade and lamé, and we are very lucky that the school has a large amount of this gear that has grown over many years so no one is required to buy or bring their own gear. We even have an electronic scoring system like the ones used at the Olympic level,” Katz said.
Like the young men that gave fencing its start at Muhlenberg back in 1954, Katz is passionate about developing his skills. However, unlike those ambitious men, Katz is no stranger to the sport. “I had fenced for about 4 years, but I stopped at the start of high school. I am very glad that I have been able to take up the sword once more in college. A few of our members, too, including our team captain Eli Coopersmith [‘23], have some years of prior experience before coming to Muhlenberg.” Having this backbone of fencing experience, especially among Muhlenberg’s freshman class, is crucial for the longevity of the club.
While the fencing club remains a rather small organization on campus, Katz explained that his vision for the team is to eventually “compete against other schools who have non-intercollegiate clubs.” Before making that move, however, it is important to Katz that everyone feels confident in their abilities and skills.
And while they may only be a club for now, for Katz, that does not ruin the excitement and exhilaration of the sport. “Even though we don’t compete at the collegiate level, that doesn’t make the sport any less rewarding. Fencing is such a noble and exciting sport, and being able to meet every week makes me so happy. It is not a common sport, so being able to learn and take part in it is a very unique opportunity,” he explained.
With a stable membership and practice schedule, the Muhlenberg fencing club surely looks destined for a bright future.
Like the Mules back in 1954, the Mules today are passionate and determined to ensure the sport’s place within Muhlenberg Athletics.