Experience

How do I get recruited for fencing?

TJ McNally
 

Tips from Culver's coach 

 

October 15, 2020

How Can I Get Recruited by a D1 Fencing Program?

The short and sweet answer to this question is, of course, RESULTS. The right results at the right competitions will draw the notice of coaches at all the NCAA Division I colleges and universities that field fencing teams.

When I was a senior at Notre Dame, Mariel Zagunis arrived for her freshman year with a 2004 Olympic gold medal around her neck. Mariel was then, and continues to be, a world class fencer. If you are regularly competing and medaling at the highest levels (World Cups, Grand Prix, the Olympics), chances are the coaches already know who you are. If that’s not you, though, don’t lose hope. You don’t need Olympic gold to compete in college.

Fencing in the United States is a pretty small community, and competition for spots on Division 1 teams can be quite fierce, depending on your aspirations. There are only 27 D1 fencing teams to choose from, and the NCAA limits the number of fencing scholarships a school may give to a maximum of 4.5 for men’s teams and five for women’s teams.

Fencing is an “equivalency” sport, though, meaning colleges can spread that scholarship money out among several different athletes. They don’t have to be complete full-ride scholarships like you see with the so-called “head-count” sports like football, basketball, and a few others. Then again, not every school fully funds their fencing teams.

If you’re looking at powerhouses like Notre Dame, Penn State, Columbia, or Ohio State, they most likely have the full allotment of scholarships to work with. Other schools may not. This is all to say, getting recruited to fence in college can be quite a challenge, but if you have attractive results and good relationships on your side, you’ve got a shot.

 

 

Results

First, let’s talk academic results. You’re going to need to be competitive with all the other students applying to your college of choice. Coaches have some influence over admissions, but probably not as much as you think. This varies widely depending on the school, the sport, and the individual coach. Case in point: the recent college admissions scandals at elite institutions. Prospective students in these situations falsified both academic and athletic achievements in addition to bribing coaches to help get them admitted.

Without the fake test scores, the coach’s influence would not have been enough. If you don’t have grades and test scores comparable to the rest of your potential class, there’s not much a coach can do for you. Fencing is not a prestigious, money-making sport like football or basketball; our coaches do not have the same kind of pull a Nick Saban or a Mike Krzyzewski does.

And because of those recent scandals, colleges are even more leery of any possible appearance of impropriety. Fencers tend to be better than average students, so hopefully this is not an issue for you. If you’ve been slacking off with your studies, though, it’s time to hit the books.

By the time you’re looking at fencing in college, you should have already been competing in North American Cups (NACs) hosted by USA Fencing. Depending on how young you started, this means you have national fencing experience from as early as the age of eight! NCAA Division I coaches will be most interested, though, in your Juniors results. Depending on your skill level, you should have also competed in Division 3, Division 2, or Division 1 events at NACs. Here, most coaches are interested in your Division 1 (Seniors) results; they want to see how well you’ve done against all of the other A, B, and C rated fencers. Unfortunately, results in high school-only competitions aren’t of interest to most coaches.

Ideally, you’d have an A-rating of your own, several top-64 finishes, and some medals from finishing in the top 8. If you’re one of the best young American fencers, you might have had the opportunity to compete in FIE World Cups. College coaches will certainly be interested in those results, but sometimes it can be more difficult to gauge the competitiveness of, for example, an FIE satellite competition.

Harrison Hue, Director of Operations for Ohio State Fencing, recommends, “Try to make cadet and junior points so your name pops up on the national points standing, that way we get a sense of where you are in the nation.” Some coaches of less competitive teams may look at your Division 2 NAC results, especially if you have a lot of medals there or if you won a Division 2 event to earn your B rating, but your goal should be to get on those Juniors and Seniors points lists.

It’s not just that college coaches are interested in your results; they often attend NACs and World Cups, sometimes in their roles as college coaches, sometimes as club coaches. If you are regularly competing deep into the tableau of Cadet, Junior, and Div 1 tournaments, you are likely to be seen. And they want to see an elite competitor. Do you keep battling in the face of a deficit, or do you just give up? Who are you on and off the strip? If a couple calls don’t go your way and you get frustrated, coaches will see how you handle it, how you treat your opponents and the referees. They keep mental notes of those things.

How closely coaches look at your individual bouts in any given tournament can vary. Some coaches follow your path through the DE tableau; they want to see that you beat quality fencers instead of lucking out with seeding. Other coaches, like Columbia’s Michael Aufrichtig, are very interested in your pool results since NCAA fencing is almost entirely decided by five touch bouts. During the regular season, NCAA fencing competitions are all dual meets: each weapon competes in three-on-three team matches, best of nine five-touch bouts, with the match scores from each weapon combined for a total score out of 27.

For example, if Harvard and Yale’s men’s teams are competing against one another, their results might look like this:

 

 

HARVARD MEN

YALE MEN

ÉPÉE

4

5

FOIL

6

3

SABRE

7

2

TOTAL

17

10

 

Even though Yale’s men’s épée squad beat Harvard 5-4, Harvard’s foil and sabre squads picked up the slack, and Harvard won the dual meet 17-10. This is quite different from team competitions in non-collegiate competition (foreign and domestic) where teams are put into direct elimination brackets and fence three-on-three relays to 45 touches.

The NCAA Championships also has a very different format: each weapon competes in a giant round-robin of five-touch bouts among 24 fencers. The team with the most victories wins the title. Fencing is also unique in being the only NCAA sport that has a combined men’s and women’s title, so the round-robin results from all the men’s and women’s foil, épée, and sabre competitions are tallied to determine the champion. The top four in each weapon fence to 15 touches in a small elimination bracket to determine individual gold, silver, and bronze medals.

In sum, if you consistently win all your pool bouts, especially those tight 5-4 contests, and you win quality DEs to reach the podium, you might be very attractive to a college coach.

 

 

Relationships

Some of the most important relationships for your recruiting experience are the ones you have with your club coaches. Fencing is a relatively small community. Chances are your club coaches know which colleges and universities have the best fencing teams. Hopefully, they know and have good relationships with the head coaches at those schools. You should ask them for advice and help with navigating the college recruitment experience. They can act as an intermediary of sorts between you and the college coach. If you happen to live near a college that has a fencing team, chances are the coaches there operate a private club as well. Pretty convenient when your club coach is also the coach at the university you want to attend.

Your relationships with your clubmates are also key. NCAA fencing is primarily team-based. You’ll compete in three-on-three dual meets (best of nine five-touch bouts wins) against other schools. The only individual bouts you’ll see are at conference championships, regional qualifiers for NCAA championships, and the top-4 fencers in each weapon at the NCAA championships. College coaches are looking for fencers who work well in a team environment, so be good to your clubmates: cheer for them, strip-coach for them, help them improve.

Of course, the relationships you build with your potential college coaches are of prime importance. Before we talk about building that relationship, though, there are some NCAA rules you need to know:

  • Division I coaches can send you non-recruiting materials any time. These are things like questionnaires, camp advertisements, general admissions material from the school, and educational materials published by the NCAA.
  • On June 15 after your sophomore year, Coaches can call you, send e-mail or texts, any kind of private correspondence. This is when they can start sending you specific recruiting materials or even make verbal offers on scholarships. If you attend a camp or clinic with a college coach, you can have recruiting conversations after this date.
  • On August 1 before your junior year, you can start making official visits to campus and you can arrange unofficial visits (trips where your family pays for all the travel) where you’re allowed to meet with the coach. At this time, coaches can also meet with you at your home or school.

All that being said, coaches are generally allowed to talk to you about their program as long as you are the one who initiated contact. E-mail is the preferred first contact, but many schools also maintain online questionnaires on their websites. Either one of those is the best place to start. If there’s a questionnaire, just fill it out. If not, what should you say in an e-mail?

Well, to start, try to personalize it. Make it clear that you have researched the school’s program and the coaching staff. Include your club coach’s contact information so the college coach can correspond with them. This is where that positive relationship with your club coach becomes so important. Tell them a little about your highest achievements, but hold off on the full resumé for now. If you’re going to be competing at a NAC or something soon that they might be attending, let them know where and when. Bear in mind, though, that while they’re free to watch you fence, they can’t really talk to you until after the competition is over for the day. Include a link to a highlight reel of some sort. This doesn’t need to have high production value, just a series of clips from competitions is enough. Don’t just cherry pick your best touches from your entire career; coaches like to see recent action and complete bouts to see a whole picture of you as a fencer. I’d recommend just a few isolated touches and then a complete five-touch bout or two. You can edit these to cut down on the breaks between touches. Keep it brief! You’re not the only one marketing yourself to coaches, and they’ll appreciate something less than ten minutes.

Proofread your e-mail! If you won’t put in the effort to write a good e-mail, why should they believe you’re ready for the effort and discipline of Division I athletics? If you can find a phone number for the coach follow up with a call a few days after the e-mail. In the beginning, don’t be discouraged if you don’t get replies right away. Coaches are busy people. Think about sending another e-mail a couple of days after your phone call attempt. Note: if you are not yet in the contact period (after June 15 of your sophomore year), coaches may not correspond with you directly. This is why it’s important to include your club coach’s contact information.

Another way to get some time with coaches is to attend camps and clinics. Many college programs run summer programs where you can stay on campus for a little preview of that college life while also getting some quality training under your belt. It’s a good idea to attend one of those camps during middle school or early in high school to put yourself on the coach’s radar. Many coaches also do guest stints at the more elite, competitive camps run around the county at places like Northwest Fencing Center or Tim Morehouse Fencing. Attending those camps is another good way to be seen, especially in comparison with other likely recruits.        

How’s your social media presence? Once coaches start looking at you, they’ll probably take a look at what you put out on the internet. Best to keep public things very professional. Harrison Hue recommends putting your graduation year in the public information on your Facebook and Instagram accounts. This makes it easier for coaches to tell when they’re allowed to contact you about recruiting. It also helps to like and follow the programs you’re interested in, so you can see how they act and how you might fit in with them. If you like what you see and hear, there’s a good chance you’ll do well there. Reach out to alumni; you’ll probably get the best information about the school and the personality of the team from people who have competed and graduated from there.

Final Thoughts

Now take a deep breath. Maybe that was a lot more than you expected. Collegiate fencing is, especially at the highest levels, just as demanding as any other Division 1 sport. (We spent the first day of practice senior year running up and down every set of stairs at Notre Dame Stadium!) If you want to be recruited, you have a lot of work ahead of you. I have to say, though, the effort is so worth it.

The energy, the camaraderie, the drama of fencing… They’re unique. You get moments like these: the score is tied 4-4, seconds ticking away on the clock, the outcome of one bout, one touch, the action of a split second, can determine a championship. When your teammate makes that touch, the eruption of cheers, everyone jumping up and down, mobbing the strip, beaming.

It’s intoxicating. It’s an energy I wish everyone could have at least once in their lives. It’s an energy maybe you’ll get the chance to taste. Good luck!

TJ McNally is the head fencing coach and epee specialist for Culver Academies, one of a small number of secondary schools in the U.S. with fencing teams and the only school in Indiana with fencing as a varsity sport. Coach McNally leads the Prep, Varsity, and JV Fencing Programs at Culver. From 2001-2005 he attended the University of Notre Dame and was fortunate to be able to walk on the fencing team where he was coached by Yves Auriol, Janusz Bednarski, and Zoltan Dudas. In 2003 and 2005 the Fighting Irish won the NCAA National Championships. Though TJ was not one of the 12 starters who competed at those championships, he’d like to think his cheering and moral support in Colorado Springs and Houston were worth at least a touch or two!

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