It was a scene straight out of High Noon. Geoffrey Russell of Penn State and Ben Atkins of Columbia University stood facing each other at the Angela Athletic Facility on the St. Mary's College campus in South Bend. After four days and 88 fiercely contested matches, the NCAA fencing championship had come down to this, the eighth bout of the gold-medal match in the team �p�e competition. With Penn State leading four bouts to three in the best-of-nine match. Russell needed just five touches to give the Nittany Lions the �p�e title—and with it the overall team championship.
The few dozen spectators who were seated along the edge of Strip 2 in the small gym waited expectantly, knowing they might soon witness a changing of the en garde in collegiate fencing. Columbia, winner of the last three men's NCAA team titles, had gone to South Bend hoping to equal both Wayne State's record of four consecutive titles and NYU's alltime total of 12. Penn State had never won the overall championship, though it finished second last year.
Entering the gold-medal �p�e match, Columbia led the tournament by two points. But since 12 points would be awarded to the first-place team and nine to the runner-up, that margin meant nothing. The team that won �p�e would be the NCAA champion.
"In �p�e, anything can happen," said Columbia assistant coach Joel Glucksman. Indeed, fencers call it the most dramatic and least forgiving of their sport's three events. In �p�e, the whole body is the target, unlike saber, where it's any place above the waist, and foil, where only the torso can be hit for points. And in �p�e there are few constraints on style.
"It is cut-and-dried—pure fencing," said Penn State head coach Emmanuil Kaidanov, an emigrant from the U.S.S.R. "Whoever touches first wins the point." In the final bout, Russell, a 6'2" redheaded sophomore from Venice, Calif., touched first—five consecutive times. Against the smaller Atkins, Russell was able to wait, feint and then make the thrusts he wanted. He won 5-0, giving Penn State the 12 points and the overall title with 36 points, to 35 for Columbia and 30 for third-place Notre Dame, the host school. No sooner did Russell pull off his mask than he found himself in the embrace of his cheering teammates.
"Bravo!" said Kaidanov.
It was a fitting climax to an uncommonly exciting meet. For the first time in 24 years, the NCAA championship was a true team competition. Previously, fencers competed as individuals, scoring points for their schools based on their placings in the three weapons. Under the old format, a school could win the men's team title with just three fencers. Women, who compete in foil only, had a separate championship. This year, in a switch that has put the NCAA format closer to that of international competition, three-member teams vied in each of the men's events. What's more, in a change prompted by dwindling participation in collegiate fencing—which threatened its status as a full-fledged NCAA sport—men's and women's team scores were combined to produce a single overall champion. There were still individual championships in all weapons, but they were now entirely separate from the team competition.
The new format was well received by the 184 fencers, and their coaches, assembled in South Bend. "Before, the winner was whoever had the three best fencers," said Michel Sebastiani, the Princeton coach. "Now, that is not enough. Now, you must have depth—across the board."
Mike DeCicco, who has been Notre Dame's coach for 29 years, was even more enthusiastic. After his �p�e squad lost its third-round match to the University of Pennsylvania, and with it any chance for the overall title, DeCicco was nonetheless able to say, "There! That's why I love this format. It's like the Final Four in basketball. Fencing may never challenge those guys for TV exposure, but at least now we have the same format—the same kind of excitement."
From the start, Columbia and Penn State were so closely matched that barely a blade separated them. Penn won the team saber, with the New York Lions whipping the Nittany Lions in a head-to-head match for third.