One win away from receiving a bid to the NCAA Fencing Championship game, co-captain sabre Valentin Staller calmly stared down his opponent, No. 1 Max Stearns of Ohio State, and defeated him 15-13 for the upset victory.
Staller has had an illustrious career with the Crimson. He has been the calm, composed leader of a Harvard team that finished sixth at the NCAA Fencing Championships and second at the Ivy League Championships this season.
“He is very disciplined with his training,” said freshman epee Peregrine Badger. “He makes sure we are always working hard.”
Saber events are different from epee and foil events in that points can be scored with touches from the top and side of the blade to any target from the waist-up, excluding both hands.
The Old Field, N.Y. native started fencing when he was in middle school.
“On Long Island, there happens to be a high school league,” Staller said. “When I was in middle school I just decided to try out for the team. I made the team and then I got really into it. I got pretty competitive and I started going to national tournaments, and then I ended up here.”
With each passing year, Staller’s fencing accolades have only increased. As a freshman, he placed 15th at the NCAA Championships and as a sophomore, he placed ninth. At the Ivy League Championships during his freshman and sophomore years, Staller was chosen as a first team All-Ivy saber.
Last year, as a junior, Staller received All-American honors and All-Ivy second team honors. He finished ninth individually at the NCAA Fencing Championships and helped the Crimson to a fourth-place tie with Ohio State. This year, he was chosen as a first team All-Ivy player, finishing sixth in the saber field at the NCAA Northeast Regional event at Boston College. Staller was also featured in CollegeFencing360 as a “Primetime Performer.”
His sophomore teammate Lucas Lin attributes much of Staller’s success to his composure and unflappable personality.
“I think his success is largely a part of his mental game,” Lin said. “His ability to stay focused under pressure is a huge part of what the college game is about.”
Staller says that this season he has learned to better control his emotions on the strip.
“The nature of the sport can be pretty mentally draining,” Staller said. “It can be pretty stressful. When you are fencing for a team, you are really putting the team on your back. I’ve been working on just staying cool, keeping a clear head, and sticking with my decisions.”
Although Staller has been highly competitive throughout his time fencing sabre at Harvard, the biggest match of his fencing career was against No. 2 seed Aleksander Ochocki of Penn State in the championship bout of the NCAA tournament.
Staller would finish in second place individually in the men’s saber championship, falling to Ochocki, 15-11.
“It was a tough matchup for me,” Staller said. “I thought that I had a game plan that I could beat him with, but he kept willing himself that extra half inch.”
While Staller wasn’t able to claim the individual title in saber, his teammates insist that the senior sabre put forth a valiant effort.
“I think the [NCAA] Championships are the most competitive event of college fencing,” Badger said. “Our expectations are always down to earth. You have to put it all into perspective. Valentin coming in second was really incredible. You have to remember that [we] are playing some of the best people in the country, and in some cases some of the best people in the world.”
Staller hopes to continue fencing after graduation at the international level and is currently training to attend the USA National Championships in April.
“Overall, this tournament was rather bittersweet for me. I’m really sad that my fencing career here at Harvard has come to a close,” Staller said. “I’ve definitely had my ups and downs, but I was really happy to have finished my career with my strongest result. Fencing has definitely been one of the best parts of my Harvard experience, and I cannot imagine what my time here would have been like without it.”