Big things come in small packages. At least that’s what the Duke fencers are saying following a successful run at the NCAA Championships.
The Blue Devils sent the smallest number of fencers of any team ranked in the top 10 but still managed to come away with four All-Americans and a medalist, as Duke—led by a pair of seniors in Dylan Nollner and Alessio Santoro—finished 10th overall in team points. The Blue Devils were also bolstered by the second-day performance of Sarah Collins and the solid marks reached by the two freshmen they sent to Ohio State University this weekend.
Collins—Duke's sole female representative—did not get off to a hot start. Following the first day of competition, the junior seemed all but finished after posting a 5-15 record. She sat in 24th—last place—in the women’s epee through her first run of bouts and looked to be out of the hunt. But Collins knew there was one more day to go.
"Looking back to that night, I told myself, 'I refuse to finish that way.' If I was going to go out that way, I was going to go out with a fight," Collins said. "I knew that I could fence all of these people, I fenced them many times before over the years and I knew that I could do it, I just had to have the mental capacity to do it. The next day, it was a new day, I woke up and I did my job."
On the second day of competition, Collins stormed back with a 6-2 clip to jump 12 spots and finish 12th overall in the epee. Friday’s performance turned out to be so impressive that Collins was awarded All-America honors for the first time in her career.
"It's crazy, especially since this was my first time being able to say [I'm an All-American]," Collins said. "To have an emotional, physical, definitely physical, mental struggle this year and to be able to come away with such a result, for me, was a great accomplishment. Especially since I did, you know, start off being dead last."
On the men’s side, it was a veteran who led the way for the Blue Devils as a pair of freshmen showed the program will be in good hands in the coming years.
Santoro finished his stellar senior campaign at the top of his game, capturing a third-place finish in the men’s epee after two days of competition in his first career NCAA tournament. The top-three finish makes him Duke's third male fencer to secure a top-four finish and was the first since John Kahn won the national title for the epee in 1996.
After sitting in second through the first day of competition, Santoro continued his success during day two, moving into first place prior to the medal rounds. His run ended when he lost 15-8 to eventual national runner up Garrett McGrath of Notre Dame, tying Santoro with Princeton’s Jack Hudson for third place.
Nollner joined Santoro as a senior epee at the tournament for Duke. Unlike Santoro, this was not his first trip to the NCAA Championships but rather his fourth. He has been the leader that the rest of the team has looked to for guidance throughout the postseason, as his consistency and experience made him the go-to resource for postseason success.
“More often that not, I'll get stuck in a situation and not know what to do and I'll hopelessly turn to Dylan and hope that he has something good to say," Santoro said. "Whenever I got to the semifinal round, I was asked, 'Who do you want to coach you?' I didn't even take a second thought. I was like, 'Can I get Dylan to coach me?'"
Although Nollner may not have won the ever-elusive national title he’s been chasing in his four years at Duke, the senior managed to go out on good terms, finishing seventh in the men’s epee to close out his career as a Blue Devil.
While the Blue Devil upperclassmen flourished, a pair of Duke freshmen were quietly making their ways through the ranks as saber Christopher Monti and foil Joseph Lam finished eighth and 20th in their respective fields. Monti concluded his freshman year with a solid showing at the tournament, finishing 14-11 and earning All-America honors.
With Santoro and Nollner graduating this May, the Blue Devils will look for the youth to carry the team in the future, with senior leaders like Collins guiding them through the ins-and-outs of the postseason. Monti and Lam serve as a bright ray of hope for Duke, as their early experiences in the NCAA Championships will allow them to grow up fast and avoid any form of sophomore slump while leading next year’s freshmen.
"I see so much talent [in Monti and Lam]," Santoro said. "My freshman year, I wasn't anywhere close to where they were. Seeing how much I've progressed in four years, I can only project onto them and expect the best from them."