In nearly every way, the 2008 NCAA fencing championship was déjà vu for the Columbia Lions fencing team. The Light Blue captured third place overall, behind national champion Ohio State and runner-up Notre Dame, bolstered by Jeff Spear's individual sabre national championship and bronze-medal performances from Kurt Getz, Emily Jacobson, and Nicole Ross. Columbia's third-place finish matched the best in the program's history—set last year—since the expansion to six disciplines.
"I'm extremely pleased with the team," head coach George Kolombatovich said. "They all gave everything they had. With one gold, three bronzes, and a number of All-Americans, the team beat out some major scholarship schools and did it with such a young team."
Columbia began the four-day marathon with mixed results in the women's competition. Both the sabre and foil disciplines came out strong, posting 38 victories in 56 matches, but it was in epee that the Lions struggled, with only 11 wins in 28 bouts. The Light Blue entered the tournament with the two top seeds in women's sabre in the Jacobson sisters—Emily and Jackie—who did not disappoint in their only appearance on the national stage together, collecting 35 wins in 46 tries. Jackie, in her first NCAA championships, finished with second-team All-American accolades. Emily finished one of the best women's sabre collegiate careers on record with gold, silver, and bronze medals from the NCAA championships, along with three first-team All-American honors.
"Emily is going to be extremely hard to replace," Kolombatovich added. "We do have Daria [Schneider] coming back which helps, but there's no replacing someone like Emily. Dani Gordet is also graduating and she's been an unsung hero for this program.
Luckily, we have our first year students who exceeded all my expectations this season."
Indeed, it was the youth on the women's side that kept Columbia in the hunt for a national title after day two, as the freshman Ross won 19 of her 23 bouts in foil alongside fellow freshman Abby Caparros who finished 10th. Ross lost her first match in the national semifinals by a score of 15-11, but came back in the bronze-medal match and crushed Adi Nott of Notre Dame 15-2. By virtue of being in the top four foil fencers, Ross earned first-team All-American honors, while Caparros' finish placed her in the honorable mention category.
The quality of the Lions' youth came as no shock to Kolombatovich.
"All of our young team members have been on national teams, so they're really experienced," he said. "Their work ethic is top notch and it shows other people that there are no easy routes to be that good. Talent isn't enough and they proved that true."
A similar story held true for the men, as it was the sabre and foil disciplines that helped Columbia maintain its third-place positioning after day three of the event. Both groups took 19 victories in their first five rounds of competition, as the epee team struggled to only eight wins. Although now out of the title race, the Lions were fighting with Penn State for third place, holding a slim five-victory lead heading into the final day of competition.
Despite losing some ground in the final three rounds of competition, Columbia held off the Nittany Lions by three bouts 158-155 to claim third place overall at the tournament. Spear and Getz continued to pick up much-needed victories as the epee squad of Lorenzo Casertano and Brent Kelly successfully added to the bout tallies at crucial intervals. Getz and Spear entered the semifinals as 3-seeds with Spear claiming a 15-12 win over Luther Clement and Getz falling 15-10 to eventual national champion Andras Horanyi. Like his foil counterpart Ross, Getz dominated his bronze-medal match 15-6, claiming his second bronze in as many years.
Spear faced the top-seed Mike Momtselidze of Ohio State in the national championship match, and although Momtselidze finished the tournament with only two losses, both of them came at the hands of Spear. The 15-10 victory clinched the individual title for the sophomore, who gave the Lions their second national champion in sabre—Schneider won the women's sabre title in 2007.
"I sincerely believe that Jeff was better prepared mentally than any of his opponents," Kolombatovich said. "He was out there having fun. He was so loose and relaxed that he was in complete control and it all just happened for him."
Spear and Getz both earned first-team All-American honors, while senior Alex Diacou took away honorable mention status in his first trip to the NCAA championships.
"We always set our goals very high for this team and we went above them this year," Kolombatovich said. "With very few seniors graduating and this group of first-year students, I'm very pleased with the way the program is moving."