History Lesson: Crimson Wins First National Title

Harvard takes a milestone NCAA team crown in Houston, the first in the program's 118-year history

UNGAR-D
Alexandra C. Bell

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 Cinderella.

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 national championship.

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 endings.

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 atait@fas.harvard.edu.

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