Franke looks to instill team culture in young team

After a shortened 2020-21 season, No. 9 Temple University fencing looks to qualify for the NCAA Championship.

Coach Nikki Franke watches as members of the fencing team practice in the TU Pavilion on Jan. 1. | ZAMANI FEELINGS / COURTESY

No. 9 Temple University fencing is looking to find the same momentum they had in their 2019 season when they were ranked in the top. 5 in the U.S. Fencing Coaches Association, said head coach Nikki Franke. 

“We have a very strong schedule, which is very challenging,” Franke said. “I think if we’re in the top 10, that’s a really good position for us, especially with the youth that we have.”

The Owls were ranked No. 8 in preseason rankings following the start of their 2021-22 season on Oct. 23, 2021. But Temple fell one spot in the rankings after going a couple of matches without a win.

Temple’s team has little experience under their belt, with 11 freshmen on the roster. However, they’ve supported each other at meets by cheering from the sidelines and providing feedback at practice on footwork tactics and blade work, said assistant coach Tasia Ford.

“That’s kind of part of the Temple fencing ways, bringing that lively energy to those meets,” Ford said.

After competing in three regular season matches, Temple’s primary focus is rebuilding the team culture that Franke has cultivated in the past, which has allowed the team to continue their success. 

“We have a system and we have a culture on the team that is all about hard work,” Franke said. “Pushing forward, helping each other, uplifting each other and encouraging each other.”

After earning a No. 5 ranking in the nation in the 2019-20 season, their highest ranking in program history, the Owls have faced multiple challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, Temple had five fencers qualify for the NCAA Championship for the first time since 2009. But due to the spike in COVID-19 cases across the country, the NCAA canceled the Championship meet, which was scheduled at the TCF Center in Detroit, Michigan, on March 19 to 22, 2020.  

The Owls had to adapt around new restrictions like wearing additional face masks under their uniform and not shaking an opponent’s hand during the meet.

“We’ll just like tap blades and that has also translated to practice,” said senior foil fencer Cassie Navalta. “Usually, we would high five at the end but now at practice we’re also just tapping blades so it feels a little less personal.”

Because 15 of the team’s 19 athletes are underclassmen, a lot of the team is inexperienced compared to their opponents. Each match presented a completely new experience and environment for the Owls, Franke said.

Temple is playing tough Ivy League opponents for the first time since 2019, a challenge they did not have to face last year because those teams opted out of the 2020-21 season.

However, the Owls have not allowed their obstacles to hinder them. On Jan. 21, Temple went 2-1 against three of the top-15 teams in the country in its first home match of the regular season. The Owls conquered then No. 15 New Jersey Institute of Technology and then No. 14 University of North Carolina, but fell to then No. 3 Princeton University, now ranked No. 1.

Temple also went 2-2 the following day, locking in wins against then No. 6 Northwestern University and then No. 10 The University of Pennsylvania.

“The work ethic and the culture of our team stay the same,” Franke said. “We’re just bringing new people into the fold.”

As the season progresses, each match has allowed upperclassmen, like junior epee fencer Naomi Ross and Navalta, to step into leadership roles.

“Now I feel like the eyes, I know they’re on me,” Navalta said. “So just like stepping forward and taking initiative and also drawing upon that experience we already have.”

As upperclassmen, Ross and Navalta help coach their teammates rather than waiting for guidance as they did in previous years. 

“If there’s something wrong, now we’re the ones that need to go and help deal with that for the rest of the team,” Ross said. 

The team hopes their growth continues into the postseason by qualifying for the NIWFA and NCAA championships.

Temple’s next match is against Duke University, where the Owls will head to Durham, North Carolina, to compete in the Duke Invitational on Feb. 13.

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