Aquinas Academy fencing seeks dual success with boys, girls teams

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Saturday, February 18, 2023 | 11:01 AM


Aquinas Academy fencing coach John Carroll got right to the point when asked about his expectations this season.

“I’m pretty confident,” he said, “that we are going to do well.”

The Aquinas Academy boys team returns one starter from the 2022 Pennsylvania Interscholastic Fencing Association runner-up, while the school’s girls team features the deepest roster in Carroll’s six seasons.

“As I approached the season, I thought it would be more of a building year (for the boys). I’m not convinced it’s going to be a building year,” Carroll said. “I look for good things from the girls. This is the largest girls team that I’ve ever fielded. I really expect them to do as well or better than the boys. I’m relatively confident that we’re going to go pretty far with them.”

The Crusaders are part of the PIFA, which is comprised of 10 boys teams and eight girls teams from Western Pennsylvania schools. The boys team opened the 2023 season by splitting matches with Seton LaSalle (5-4 win) and Mt. Lebanon (5-4 loss) on Jan. 27. The Aquinas boys, seeded fourth, lost to perennial power Allderdice, 5-2, in the PIFA finals last season after handing top-ranked Fox Chapel its first defeat of the season, 5-3, in the semifinals. Aquinas had defeated Allderdice, 5-4, in the regular season, but the Dragons avenged the loss to claim their fifth title in the past six years.

Junior Ben Everson, the team’s top fencer, is the lone returning starter for the small Catholic school in Hampton. He is joined by a deep, but inexperienced roster that includes juniors Tony Shen and Evan Gounaris, sophomore Sam McGowan and freshmen Zander Beaven, Louis Bentivenga and Jack Hoerster.

“I think losing the title match was definitely a big factor in motivating me to try harder this year,” Everson said. “Everyone has shown a lot of improvement. I’m really looking forward to the rest of the season. I think we have a good chance at winning.”

Said Carroll, “My returning lettermen have all upped their game. Every one of them is performing at a significantly higher level than they did last year.”

High school fencers compete on a “strip,” which is roughly 6 feet wide and 46 feet long and made of metal or some other conductive material. They wear a metal mesh mask, a metallic vest for electronic scoring, knickers and a glove. A minimum of three fencers on each team compete in each match. The bouts — nine total — are three minutes or until a fencer reaches five points.

The girls team, which opened the season with a 5-4 victory over Mt. Lebanon, returns two starters, senior Grace Burchill and sophomore Nadine Hokaj. The five-girl roster also includes freshman Meghan McKee, a left-hander, as well as junior Isabel Giancola and ninth-grader Lara Hainan. Last year the Crusaders had only two girls on the roster and were forced to forfeit three bouts each match. This year will be vastly different, Carroll said.

“There is a lot of athleticism on the girls side,” Carroll said. “The girls are tall and they have very long lunges.”

The Crusaders will host their lone home match this season Feb. 24 against Peters Township and Fox Chapel.

Other matches included Feb. 3 against Pine-Richland, two-time defending PIFA girls champion Shady Side Academy and host Fox Chapel; and Feb. 17 against North Allegheny, Winchester Thurston (boys only) and host Allderdice.

The PIFA championships are scheduled for March 3.

The boys program was formed in 2016 with a pair of fencers. With seven fencers this year, the Crusaders are now deep enough to fine-tune their lineup depending on their opponent’s weaknesses. They have left-handers, aggressive fencers, tall fencers or those with a lot of blade action.

“I have true depth,” Carroll said. “Even though I have a strong No. 1, I can freely substitute from all of the boys into (the) 2, 3 and 4 (spots). Most teams report to the strip with a really strong fencer, and they have a supporting cast. I just think that my supporting cast is stronger.”

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