Fencers look to take final step before NCAA ChampionshipsWith NCAA Championships looming on the horizon, All-American senior Dylan Nollner will look to capture another title at the NCAA Mid/South-Atlantic Regionals this weekend before turning his focus on the Championships.
After claiming first place at regionals last year, Nollner knows what it takes to make it to Columbus, Ohio—the location of this years NCAA Championships. The Blue Devil fencers will have to mentally prepare for the regionals should they hope to move on to the final round of postseason play. This applies more so to the seniors, as this weekend has the possibility to be their last meet in a Duke uniform.
"You can't think about it, you've got to block that all from your mind," Nollner said. "If you dwell on that kind of stuff—your legacy and things like this is my last chance and I have to qualify—if you put that pressure on yourself, in terms of performance, you're going to blow it. Mentally it's a fine line to walk between being too confident and too arrogant and putting no pressure on yourself on all."
With this pressure comes Nollner's high expectations, which have steadily increased throughout his four years at Duke—the senior finished the regular season with a 35-14 clip and has now qualified for regionals in each season of his career. The coming weekend will grant him a final opportunity to move on to Columbus and claim the title as the nation's top epee, a title he came close to capturing last year and is determined to come away with in his final attempt.
"I'm going out there to win. I won regionals last year and was a point away from semi-finals at the Championships," he said. "Obviously that's been in the back of my mind all season, all off-season. I'm not going in there just to be nostalgic and a four-time qualifier, I've got one thing on my mind and that's to win."
Nollner was named an All-American after he finished fifth in the men's epee at last year's NCAA Championships, becoming Duke's fifth male fencer to finish in the top five. Although his sights are certainly set on returning to the final round, he and the rest of his team understand how important it is not to overlook the regionals, as they are a useful tool in assessing what adjustments need to be made before the NCAA Championships.
"I've historically done well at the regionals and I think that's because of the kind of pressure I put on myself to perform well," Nollner said. "I kind of see it as a pretest for NCAA's itself, so I can measure up against my competition in the two weeks before NCAAs and really hone in and say, 'These are the things in the next two weeks I really need to hammer in and practice a lot more.'"
The women's team is not without its postseason experience, as junior epee Sarah Collins will be looking to secure her third straight trip to the NCAA Championships. She is one of only six Blue Devils to qualify for multiple trips to the Championships and will lead the team as the only women's fencer to have made it past the Mid/South-Atlantic Regionals.
Both she and Nollner are upperclassman epees and leaders of their respective teams. The two spent their time at the Championships last year training and have developed their leadership skills, as many of the team's fencers look to them as beacons of success.
"We're both on the epee squad, which makes it kind of nice as far as training," Nollner said. "It's nice having both captains qualify and knowing what it takes, so that can kind of be pervasive through our leadership roles and through what we want to do with the team."
As leaders, Nollner and Collins have kept a watchful eye on their fellow teammates so as to make sure everyone is training properly heading into the weekend. There tends to be a habit in which less-experienced fencers become so focused on regionals that they over-prepare and leave themselves too tired to perform well. Nollner has tried to spend the season teaching the younger fencers about the importance of consistency in their training. More importantly, the senior has made a point to practice what he's preached.
"People are prone to have a little bit of tunnel vision sometimes and say, 'Oh, regionals is coming up, I really need to work my ass off now and I really need to put in the time now,'" he said. "But I've tried to preach consistency throughout the whole season, throughout the whole year, so you're not trying to put in too much work at the end and stress yourself out mentally and physically."