With the 2017 Ivy League championships under a week away, the Cornell fencing team has certainly proven itself to be contenders for the Ivy League title. The program went through an incredible change this past summer in hiring Daria Schneider as head coach, a five-time U.S. National Team member and the youngest female head coach in the history of NCAA Division I fencing. Since Schneider has taken the helm, the Red has seen quite interesting developments, effectually becoming a more competitive and hardworking team on the fencing strip.
The Red’s debut performance at the Penn Elite Invitational, where it was unable to earn a single win against the any of the other teams competing, may have cast a cloud of doubt on anyone hopeful for the team under new leadership. The tournament began with a loss to host and divisional rival Penn, 17-10, and continued with three straight losses to non-conference teams Temple, Ohio State and Notre Dame. And to make matters worse, the Red ended its season-opening invitational with a loss to another Ivy rival in Columbia.
However, a closer look at these losses, and it is clear they are not what they appear to be. Schneider demonstrated a method to the madness and used the losses to ensure a readiness for high-caliber fencing early in the season.
“We were over-matched at the Penn Elite Invitational,” Schneider said. “[It] is arguably one of the nation’s toughest college fencing competitions, and Cornell historically has not had this event on our schedule. I replaced a weaker meet with the Penn Elite to gauge our skills and competition preparedness against the type of high level teams we need to beat for Ivy League and NCAA championships.”
As it turned out, beginning the season against three of the top five ranked fencing programs in the country — including defending NCAA champions Columbia — proved to be successful for long-term development. The losses exposed the Red’s strengths and weaknesses, which served as invaluable information for Schneider moving forward.
“It was great to have the opportunity to face top Ivy and NCAA programs early in our season,” Schneider said. “Because both Penn and Columbia have higher rankings than us, direct competition with them gives us a real sense of their abilities, how we match up against them, what we must do to compete at their level and where we have the best opportunities to produce strong results against them.”
The following week gave ample time for the young team to regroup and figure out how Schneider planned to prepare them for future success, all the meanwhile setting their sights on the upcoming Vassar Invitational.
“We were the favorites at the Vassar Invitational with every school except Northwestern,” Schneider said. “The team did a good job keeping their level high against the lower ranked schools we fenced at Vassar.”
Cornell ended up dominating all but Northwestern in the invitation, giving the Red its first tournament win of the season and some positive momentum moving forward.
It was at this point that the Red truly began to gel. This newfound cohesion showcased itself in Cornell’s next tournament at the Brandeis Invitational.
“Our success at Brandeis can be attributed to our attention to expertly executing the basics,” Schneider said. “We focus daily on success in the simplest of situations so we never give away easy touches.”
Perhaps the most exhilarating win for the team at Brandeis was snapping an 11-bout losing streak to last year’s fourth ranked team, St. John’s, in a narrow 15-12 win. Overall, things fell into place for the Red, as the women won four out of five total matches at the invite, losing only to UNC, 15-12.
“The Brandeis meet was [also] at the end of the [winter] semester, which allowed more time for our athletes to practice the new drills and methodology introduced by our coaching staff,” Schneider said. “This clarity helped us compete without distraction and effectively support each other. When the athletes are focused only on the touch in front of them, very little gets in the way of success.”
The winter break intermission meant that the Red would not compete again until three weeks into the new year at the Philadelphia Invitational. However, the break also gave the team some time to truly appreciate what it had worked hard all year for, as things were slowly beginning to fall into place.
“We have a very young team. Many significant contributions to our team this season have come from freshmen and sophomores,” Schneider said. “Luckily, we also have great leadership among our upperclassmen to help keep our young guns focused and on track.”
With the end of winter break and Ivy League championships just two months away, every match started to become more crucial in seeing how Cornell would transition into the latter portion of its season. The Philadelphia Invitational would be the next challenge for the Red, and it posed unique new challenges as well as rematches against Temple, Northwestern and UNC.
While the Red began the tournament with a rocky start — including another loss against UNC, 15-12 — Cornell would go on a hot streak, mowing down NJIT, Johns Hopkins and Duke. Its most impressive win came near the end of the tournament with a close 14-13 victory against Temple, a team which the Red had lost to 23-straight times and had only beaten three times in program history prior to this win. Cornell would conclude the tournament with its second loss of the day, 16-11, against Northwestern.
“I am so proud of our team for making history yet again today, beating Temple for the first time since the 1979-80 season,” Schneider said after the weekend in Philadelphia. “What excites me most is that we still have a huge amount of room to improve upon our skills, our tactical abilities and our mental strength.”
The Red would carry its winning mentality to the following week of training before competing again at the Cornell Invitational, the last competition before the Ivy League Championships. It was the first tournament Cornell hosted in nearly a decade, and the Red’s opponents consisted of Wellesley, Carnegie Mellon and Lafayette. Cornell easily handled the schools, posting impressive results of 19-8, 26-1, and 27-0 respectively.
“There are many little things we do to help our team prepare for Ivy’s which they don’t even notice. However, if I had to share one simple thing we are doing, and it’s probably the most important, is internalizing the idea that there are no special days,” Schneider said. “Every day on the fencing strip, we ask our athletes to perform the basics to the best of their abilities and that is what we will ask for at Ivy’s.”
The quickly approaching Ivy League championships mean that the team must internalize all it has learned from Schneider’s expertise. With a 17-9 overall record going into the championship season, the team has certainly seen fantastic improvements and positive shifts in mentality, especially athletes on the younger side.
“The biggest takeaway from the team’s overall performance this year is that most of our athletes are now capable of contributing to our team goals,” Schneider said. “We perform our best when we maintain focus on applying constant pressure on our opponents and competing through the whistle and without pause during each bout.”
And as the youngest coach in NCAA Division I women’s fencing history, Schneider has noticed improvements in her own coaching domain as the year has progressed.
“Additionally, the biggest lesson I’ve learned as a coach this season — coming to a new program in which I had no previous ties or roots — is that you have to know where the student-athletes are today,” she added. ”You can make grandiose plans for practice and competition, you can visualize the heights the program can reach but if you can’t connect that with where the student-athletes are today, you won’t take them or your program anywhere.”
The Red will travel to the City of Brotherly Love yet again next weekend in hopes of securing its first Ivy League title in program history. The team has finished in fifth place for the past four years, so seeing Cornell carry this season into an Ivy coronation would be momentous for the program and Schneider in her first season at the helm.
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