With a heart-pounding 15-14 championship victory against Stanford’s Martin Lee, sophomore Benji Ungar helped Harvard overtake nine-time national champion Penn State, as well as Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Columbia.
Somewhere between Houston and Boston, a group of anxious airline passengers became national champions.
And down at Rice University, where national juggernauts Ohio
State, Notre Dame, and Penn State had laid claim to 12 of the last 16
fencing national championships, Harvard finally had its day as a
As the Harvard women fencers flew home to Boston in the midst
of the final day of the men’s competition, the Crimson men polished off
a brilliant two-day run en route to claiming the program’s first ever
In a time fit for March Madness, it was a group of underdogs
from Harvard who took center stage this weekend. The Crimson overcame
Friday’s 11-bout deficit to Penn State to win by six bouts overall by
the time competition ended on Sunday.
“I never really thought in my wildest dreams that this could
be possible,” said women’s co-captain and foilist Chloe Stinetorf.
“Coming in as a freshman four years ago, we weren’t that strong of a
team. Even at the beginning of this year, we thought we could maybe
take third at NCAAs—but winning was just a wild dream that we had.”
Bolstered by exceptional individual performances from
sophomores Emily Cross and Benji Ungar—Cross took third in women’s
foil, while Ungar won an individual title in men’s epee—the Harvard
fencing team capped a run unprecedented in team history and impossible
just five years ago.
“I personally had really high hopes and really thought we had
a good shot at this, but it’s still a long shot,” Ungar said. “I don’t
think anybody really expected this at all—not anyone.”
Before this season, the Crimson had never sent a full
12-person team to the NCAA championships. Until this year, there was
never even the faintest hope that Harvard would contend for the
nation’s No. 1 spot.
“Our coach [Peter Brand] has done a lot in terms of recruiting
and trying to set up a really good program here,” Cross said. “When he
got here we didn’t even have a chance of winning even an Ivy Title.”
In six years, Brand morphed a program that had stood for years
as an Ivy League cellar dweller into a national powerhouse. After
taking over at Harvard in 1999-2000, Brand has guided the women to two
consecutive Ivy League titles and the men’s first ever outright Ivy
crown this year.
Just four seasons ago, the Crimson sent only five fencers—all
freshmen—to the NCAA championships, where it faced squads of 12 fencers
and had no shot at a team title.
“He had five years to turn us around from a losing record to
national champions and undefeated,” said senior saber fencer David
Jakus. “[If somebody had told me we’d be national champions], I would
have said, ‘You’re crazy,’ and I’d probably still say that today.”
The Crimson women finished their competition on Friday,
trailing Penn State by 11 bouts and Notre Dame by one. A strong
performance from the women’s epee squad of junior Jasmine McGlade and
freshman Maria Larsson on Friday, coupled with Cross’s third-place
finish in foil, put the Crimson at a distant third place heading into
the men’s competition on Saturday and Sunday.
“We knew that the men’s team had to do an amazing job,”
Stinetorf said. “We knew that it was possible, but we knew it was a lot
of pressure on them, too.”
On Saturday, the Crimson men’s saber and epee teams combined
for 35 victories to guide Harvard to a three-bout lead over Penn State
and a four-bout edge over Notre Dame heading into the final day of
competition. The epee squad of Ungar and senior Julian Rose won more
bouts than any other men’s epee squad in the competition, and junior
saberist Tim Hagamen finished fourth overall.
Fellow saber David Jakus clinched the national title with 5-4
bout win to give Harvard an insurmountable lead in the final round of
saber bouts on Sunday afternoon.
For a team that had to push its bus out of two feet of snow
just to fence at Columbia a month ago, it was indeed the sweetest of
From cellar dweller to national champion, from a blizzard in
New York to the champions’ podium in Houston, the Harvard fencing team
added perhaps the only unwritten chapter to its 100-year history at
Rice on Sunday.
“Basically, the main comment that just cannot be emphasized
enough is that we proved today that nothing can stop the bus,” Rose
said. “The bus rolled through Houston. And then the bus is rolling the
party back to Beantown tomorrow.”
This time, however, the Crimson will take its championship hardware home by plane.
—Staff writer Aidan E. Tait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.