March 26, 2010

By JEFF GOLDBERG
Special to NCAA.com

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Caroline Vloka and Rebecca Ward have been friends for a long time. More than 10 years, in fact. They also have been rivals, battling each other on fencing strips from coast to coast.

If their friendship and admiration for each other has remained one constant the past decade, so has another simple truth: When they've faced each other in competition, it was no contest. Ward won every time.

That was true in 2009, when Ward, a freshman at Duke, easily defeated Vloka, a freshman at Harvard, in the NCAA women's sabre championship bout. But Vloka remained steadfast, not altering her strategy. Finally, on Friday afternoon at Harvard's Gordon Indoor Track Center, Vloka came out on top.

After two days of competition, Harvard (75 points) was in sixth place and Duke (34) in 10th in the team standings. St. John's (92) and Notre Dame (91) were leading.

In a rematch of the 2009 final, Vloka held off Ward's furious late charge to score a 15-13 victory in the women's sabre championship match.

"Last year, I was really nervous," Vloka said. "I remember going up there, my hands were shaking and this year, I was just mad. She kicked my butt last year and I wasn't fencing well at all. This year, I had a much better mindset. I believed that I could win. I had the confidence I needed and a strategy that finally worked."

It did not appear early during Friday's championship bout that much strategy would be required. Vloka, fifth entering the final three preliminary rounds, earned the third seed in the semifinals and raced to a 10-5 lead over Ward, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist.

But Ward, using quick thrusts to counter Vloka's attacking moves, scored 7 of the next 8 touches to take a 12-11 lead, seemingly poised to repeat as champion and send Vloka to another devastating defeat. Vloka lost 15-4 to Ward last year.

"I knew that I couldn't really attack fast with her," Vloka said. "My attack was okay this morning, but I knew I couldn't rush with her. I had to push her toward the end of the strip and maybe finish with her arm. I couldn't pull back at all, because that's when she would hit me."

But after taking her only lead of the match, Ward paused to tie her shoe. That momentary break allowed Vloka to regroup and improvise a strategy that delivered her a championship.

"She tied her shoe and I was really thankful for that," Vloka said. "I was really learning from my mistakes. She got a few similar touches. She was just giving me more information to beat her.
"I used my defense a lot. In attack, I noticed that she came at me really fast. I'd fall short and she'd hit me really quickly after. So, I used that to my advantage. I'd finish a longer attack so she wouldn't have the option of doing that. After she got four or five of those touches, I decided to put it back at her."

Vloka scored the next two touches to re-claim a 13-12 lead. Ward tied the bout once more, but Vloka connected the final two touches to taste ultimate victory.

"This year, I was a lot calmer," Vloka said. "I believed that I could do it, and that made all the difference."