March 26, 2010

JEFF GOLDBERG, Special to NCAA.com

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - The NCAA women's epee championship stayed with Penn State Friday, but not the way it was expected.

After the Nittany Lions' defending champion was eliminated in the semifinals, it was freshman Margherita Guzzi Vincenti, a member of the team for only two months, who secured the title, defeating Harvard's Noam Mills, 15-10, in the championship bout at Harvard's Gordon Indoor Track Center.

Guzzi Vincenti was one of three first-time women's champions Friday. Columbia junior Nicole Ross defeated 2007 and '09 foil champion Doris Willette of Penn State, 15-9. Harvard sophomore Caroline Vloka pulled the biggest upset of the day in sabre, knocking off Duke sophomore Rebecca Ward, the defending NCAA champion and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist, 15-13, in a stirring championship bout.

Vloka, who lost to Ward, 15-4, in the 2009 NCAA sabre final, held off a late challenge to claim the title. After taking a 10-5 lead, Vloka saw Ward storm all the way back to take a 12-11 lead. But Vloka won the next two points to retake the lead at 13-12, then scored the last two touches to secure the match.

"I knew I had to fence harder than I've ever had to fence, and that's what I did," Vloka said. "That's the only way I could beat her. I gave it my all."

Guzzi Vincenti, who enrolled at Penn State in January after arriving from Milan, Italy, scored six straight touches against Mills for a 10-4 lead in the epee final and was never seriously challenged again. Guzzi Vincenti's victory gave Penn State repeat individual women's champions in the same class for the first time since 1996, when Olga Kalinovskaya won her fourth consecutive foil championship.

Guzzi Vincenti advanced to the final after a controversial semifinal victory over Notre Dame's Courtney Hurley. With Hurley leading 11-10, Guzzi Vincenti was awarded a point despite the protest of Hurley and the Irish coaching staff, who claimed the tip of Guzzi Vincenti's sword touched the strip, instead of Hurley's arm.

But after a lengthy discussion, the point stood for 11-11 and Guzzi Vincenti won the next four points to take the bout.

"I was really concentrating on waiting a lot for mistakes," Guzzi Vincenti said. "I heard all the other guys from Penn State supporting me and that was a great thing. I was really happy inside. That was for Penn State and for my parents, who are in Italy. I've just started at the university, but I love all my classes, the people at Penn State are really nice and the team is wonderful. They are really supportive. They are like family for me, so I am not alone in this country."

An all-Penn State epee final was denied in another fiercely-contested semifinal, with Harvard's Mills scoring an 8-7 victory over defending champion Anastasia Ferdman in extra time, avenging her loss to Ferdman in the 2009 final.

Columbia's Ross, who failed to qualify for the foil semifinals in 2009 - finishing fifth overall - was the overall leader after the seven preliminary rounds Friday, then defeated Evgeniya Kirpicheva 15-8 in the semifinals. Willette cruised into the foil final with a 15-2 victory over Northwestern's Dayana Sarkisova. In the final, Ross broke a 5-5 tie with five consecutive touches and seven of eight overall to take a 12-6 lead.

"It was so rewarding to come back from last year's not-so-great performance," Ross said. "This year, I brought a lot more experience to the table. I was calm both days and that was really the key for me. I stayed really calm the whole day and was extremely patient in every bout. It's really rewarding to finally win."

Despite not qualifying for any of the three finals matches, St. John's (92 points) and Notre Dame (91) remained 1-2 in the overall team standings, entering the first four rounds of the men's competition Saturday. Penn State remained third with 90 points, with Princeton fourth with 76 points, Harvard fifth with 75 and Columbia sixth with 68.

Ward captured the top seed in the sabre quarterfinals by winning all nine of her five-touch bouts in Friday's final three preliminary rounds, finishing the seven-round qualifier with 22 victories and the top overall indicator (touches scored minus touches received) of plus-58 (113-55).

Vloka and Ohio State's Margarita Tschomakova, who were in fifth and seventh place respectively after Thursday's first four rounds, both went 8-1 in Friday's preliminaries to join Dagmara Wozniak of St. John's in the semifinals.

Ward defeated Wozniak 15-7 while Vloka advanced with a 15-10 victory over Tschomakova.
The four semifinalists in each category were named first-team All-American, with the 5-8 finishers making up the second team and 9-12 comprising the third team.