When Zoltan Dudas took over as the head coach of Princeton fencing in 2006, an NCAA championship was both a distant reality and a distant dream. The men's team had won one in 1964, but that was more than 40 years ago.
Dudas inherited a team that finished eighth at the NCAA finals in the year before he came to Princeton, and in his first two years, the Tigers finished 10th. Then, the climb began in an amazing pattern. Tenth turned to eighth, then sixth, then fourth, then a year ago, second.
The pattern of jumping two places had to be broken, but Dudas and the Tigers are more than happy to move up only one spot this time.
Finishing seven bout victories ahead of Dudas's former home, Notre Dame, 182-175, the Tigers claimed the first joint men's/women's NCAA fencing championship under a format that began in 1990. In doing so, Princeton unseated one of the sport's dominant teams. In the 24 championships since the 1990, a team not named Penn State, Ohio State or Notre Dame has now won just five times. Princeton's win breaks a six-year hold on the NCAA title for that triumverate.
Dudas helped Notre Dame to two titles in five seasons working with the team. On a warm Sunday in San Antonio, Dudas earned his first as a head coach.
Princeton's women had won the most bouts of any team in each of the last two seasons, but no titles are awarded for that these days. The men's team had to rise higher than it had in recent years, and the Tiger men did that Thursday and Friday. Four of the six Tiger men earned All-America honors, and senior epeeists Jonathan Yergler and Edward Kelley made it to the medal round and faced each other in the semifinals. Yergler won, coming in second in the nation.
Then came time for the women's team to do what they had done the last two years. Princeton was in a tight battle with Penn State and Notre Dame after the men's competition, Penn State leading Princeton 94-83 with Notre Dame at 77 wins.
It proved to be enough to get Princeton over the top. The Tiger women vaulted the team into first place at Saturday's close and held off Notre Dame Sunday to win.
But Princeton didn't stop with the team title. All six Tiger women earned All-America honors and three qualified for the medal round, including sisters and saberists Gracie, a freshman, and Eliza Stone, a senior, and junior epeeist Susannah Scanlan.
Eliza Stone used two stretches of dominance to become only the second Princeton woman to win an NCAA individual title alongside foilist Eva Petschnigg in 2000. Against North Carolina's Gillian Litynski in the semifinal, Stone scored the first nine touches and won 15-6, but she saved the most amazing run for the final. Down 9-4 to Anna Limbach of St. John's, allowing one point after a disputed call went against her to make it 8-4, Stone rattled off 11 of the final 12 touches to defeat Limbach 15-10 after Limbach had ousted freshman sister Gracie in the semifinal, 15-9.
Scanlan also faced a familiar foe in her medal round, taking on 2012 Olympic teammate Courtney Hurley of Notre Dame in the final after defeating Stanford's Vivian Kong 15-10 in the semis. While both share an Olympic bronze medal in team epee from this past summer, it was Hurley who went home with NCAA gold, 15-6 over Scanlan.
All six Tigers finished in the top 10 of their weapons. Sophomore Katharine Holmes nearly qualified for the medal round in the epee, placing fifth and standing one win short, at 16 victories, of advancing to the elimination bracket. Sophomore foilist Ambika Singh and junior foilist Eve Levin each won 13 bouts, Singh finishing ninth and Levin 10th.
Eliza Stone was the winningest Tiger in the pool round and nearly the winningest women's fencer overall, taking 21 bout victories to win the top saber seed. Only Notre Dame foilist Lee Kiefer, who went on to win the foil title, won more pool bouts at 22 of 23. Gracie Stone won 17 times in pool bouts and Scanlan won the top seed in epee by taking 19 of 23 round-robin bouts.
The All-America honor was the fourth for Eliza Stone making her the first Princeton women's saberist to be a four-time All-America. Only epeeist Maya Lawrence '02, who was an Olympic teammate of Scanlan last summer, and foilist Jacqueline Leahy '06 were also four-time All-Americas.
Eliza and Gracie Stone were only two of the three siblings who contributed 53 of Princeton's 182 bout victories, as junior saberist Robert Stone was also an All-America with a seventh-place finish Thursday and Friday, winning 15 bouts. If the Stone siblings formed their own team, they would have placed 10th at the NCAA finals, and without their wins Princeton would have placed sixth in the trio's only year fencing all together at Princeton.
All six Tiger women have won All-America honors in each possible season, with senior Eliza Stone doing so four times, juniors Scanlan and Levin doing so three times, sophomores Holmes and Singh doing so for the second time, and freshman Gracie Stone earning the honor in her first chance.
The NCAA championship concludes a season that saw Princeton's women win the Ivy League title for the fourth straight year, while the men's seniors were Ivy champions twice during their career. The victory also gives Princeton two NCAA team titles in the same academic year, along with the field hockey title this past fall, for the first time since 1994, when both lacrosse teams were NCAA champions.
Photos from Sunday at the NCAA Championship