Tucked deep behind the façade of McGonigle Hall is the training ground for two of the best athletes Temple has to offer.
And though their styles of play contrast, and their game isn’t well-publicized, juniors Melissa Parker and Kristin Howell have helped lead the country’s No. 8-ranked fencing program.
Both Parker and Howell bring unique personalities to the team, but each has reached the elite status of All-American through similar traits.
“I think one of the things is their work ethic,” coach Nikki Franke said. “They both work very hard. They are very committed. They want to be good and do what they need to do in order to continue to improve.”
Howell picked up the game when she was 11, while Parker first began her career at the ripe age of 5. They both came from Texas to play under legendary coach Franke, who is now in her 37th year directing the Owls. Howell was also impressed with the fencing tradition on North Broad Street.
“It’s all about teamwork,” Howell said. “Everything we do is team. I like that a lot. Everyone’s involved, whether it’s punishment or reward.”
Last season was a special one for both fencers, as they made history for the program. In the NCAA Tournament, Parker became the first Temple fencer to be named second-team All-American since Lisa Honig in 1994. Howell dazzled as well, earning the honorable mention distinction in the epee event, a feat never accomplished by an Owl.
Parker’s focus is in the foil event, while Howell’s is in the epee. Both are naturally appropriate for each based on their widely different demeanors.
“Melissa is a much more aggressive fencer,” Franke said. “The weapon fits her personality, while Kristin is kind of laid-back and easygoing and is more opportunistic, which is more of an epee style.”
But the praise from their coach didn’t stop there.
“The weapons that they specialize in many ways complement their personalities, and their personalities complement the weapons they’ve chosen,” Franke said.
Franke also mentioned that while both are leaders in the locker room, each has a different way of getting the message across. Howell is “quiet and reserved,” but speaks up when the time is right, while Parker is a high-energy motivator, constantly seeking to get everyone “pumped up.”
The work that goes into being an All-American fencer isn’t easy.
Like any Division I sport, the offseason is filled with workouts and training designed to improve strength and agility. Tournaments can be all-day affairs, lasting up to 12 hours, so cardio is a premium.
“It’s really hard, actually,” Parker said. “No one realizes all the work that we put into it like conditioning and lifting and taking lessons with Coach. [It’s] really technical. My brain hurts afterward. It’s a whole body workout.”
This year’s NCAA Tournament is March 19 in State College, Pa. Some of the Owls’ biggest rivals will be in attendance, including the country’s No. 1-ranked team and host, Penn State. Both Parker and Howell will be looking to make the progression to first-team All-American.
To do that, they’ll need to battle more than 20 of the country’s finest fencers. The top spots are decided by whoever leads the field in wins. Last season, Parker finished seventh in the foil, while her counterpart Howell was ninth in the epee category.
“At the Championships, you have to get in the Top 12 to be considered All-American,” Howell said. “Everyone’s an incredible fencer, so it’s really difficult.”
If Parker and Howell accomplish their goals, it will not only be because of individual talent but because of the teammates around them. It all stems back to the emphasis the Owls put on the word “team.”
“They couldn’t be as good as they are without the team and the people that they train with everyday,” Franke said.
Parker and Howell have already brought favorable attention to the program but look to continue to build on past and present successes. Come March, the strength of the Owls may lie in the opposing personalities of their All-Americans.
Anthony Stipa can be reached at email@example.com.