Sometime in the fall, prior to the start of its five-month-long season, the fencing team sat down and discussed its goals for the upcoming campaign with Rolf Wagschal, M.A., a doctoral candidate in Temple’s kinesiology department.
With Wagschal, who has a sport psychology concentration, and their coaches’ help, the 19-member squad copiously outlined the specific objectives they wanted to complete this season: Rank among the top five collegiate teams in the nation, send as many Owls as possible to the NCAA Regionals and, from there, qualify a maximum-six fencers for the NCAA Championships.
“It gave us something specific to work towards,” sophomore Christie Griffith said. “It gave us motivation.”
Incorporating Wagschal into its pre-season, goal-setting session isn’t anything new for the Owls. It’s something that 35-year coach Nikki Franke has done for several seasons.
Except this time, nearly every goal was accomplished.
The Owls, who at 24-6, finished eighth in the United States Fencing Coaches Association Women’s Fencing Coaches Poll, sent a maximum 12 fencers – out of 16 qualifiers – to the NCAA Mid-Atlantic/South Regionals in February. Four Owls were selected to participate in last week’s NCAA Championships, where Temple finished ninth out of 23 teams at the two-day Columbus, Ohio competition.
At the championships, sophomore Melissa Parker, a second-team All-American, finished seventh in the foil, while her teammate, fellow sophomore Kristin Howell, an honorable mention All-American, also registered a top 10 finish, placing ninth in the epee. Griffith and freshman Grace Wu finished 23rd and 19th in the sabre and epee competitions, respectively.
The origin of the Owls’ collective and individual successes can be traced to that pre-season meeting with Wagschal, who also worked with the squad throughout the regular season.
“When you reach a very high level of competition the difference between people is very small,” said Wagschal, who is in his third season working with the team. “Being able to maintain a daily regimen along with mentally training yourself for certain situations so you know how to react allows you to perform at your best.”
Franke said “everyone finds it helpful since fencing is not only a team sport but also an individual sport.”
“Each fencer has something to work on,” she said. “For some, it’s being able to concentrate and keeping distractions out.”
The emphasis on mental preparation helped Howell reach the NCAA Championships this season after she just missed qualifying for the event in her freshman year.
“This season, I just really matured,” Howell said.
A part of Howell’s maturation was recognizing the advanced skill level of epeeists at the final competition.
“At the championships, you can’t expect anything,” Howell said. “You have to work hard for every single touch.”
In her second NCAA Championship appearance, Parker, the first Temple fencer to be named second-team All-American since 1994, knew exactly what to expect. She won 16 of her 23 matches, scoring 94 touches on her opponents, while taking only 70 in return.
“Melissa is a very focused, very hard-working young lady,” Franke said. “She really came into this tournament knowing what she needed to do to perform well.”
Griffith, another sophomore who qualified for the championships last year, is one of seven second-year fencers on the team. The squad’s freshman core is led by Wu, who said her reaction to her NCAA Championship bid was “awe.”
The Beaverton, Ore.-native represents just one of many states on the Owls roster, which includes fencers from Georgia, California, Texas and Washington.
“The fencing community is actually quite small,” Wu said. “When you go to competitions, you meet coaches from all over the country. I met Nikki and really bonded with her.”
Although Wu built a rapport with Franke, she directly works with assistant coach Bradley Baker, who instructs the team’s epees and sabres.
Baker, in his fourth year with the Owls, was previously the coach of the Massachusetts club fencing team where, during his tenure, he managed to double the size of the roster and win the 2002 Coach of the Year award from the Northeast Fencing Conference.
“He is really very approachable and willing to work with the girls,” Franke said. “He works very hard. He’s really fit into our program and our philosophy.”
The philosophy Franke has taught for more than three decades is one of supporting one another. Recruits from across the country recognize the team’s success, respect the program and buy into the team-oriented philosophy, she said.
It doesn’t seem to be a hard sell.
During Franke’s tenure, the team hasn’t had a losing season since 1976. The Owls have compiled a 519-113 record in the past three decades.
Franke, the first and only fencing coach in the program’s history and a four-time USFCA Women’s Fencing Coach of the Year recipient, has a 542-144-1 record overall.
“When I first started, we were able to bring students out of the classrooms and we had walk-ons,” Franke said. “The level of fencing has changed and has gotten so much stronger.”
But so has Franke’s teams.
A perennial Top 10-caliber squad, the Owls improved upon last year’s 12th-place finish at the NCAA Championships.
Although that wasn’t specifically one of the pre-season goals that the Owls outlined with Wagschal, it was still an accomplishment that Franke and the rest of the team could take pride in.
“Their success really comes down to them,” Wagschal said. “I just try to be there to help prepare them. If what I do helps, outstanding. I view myself basically as a facilitator.”
Wagschal should have the opportunity to work with the majority of the squad again.
With only four seniors leaving (Brianna Ferrara, Samantha Myles, Marla Nacey and Kristine Jones), the Owls have lots of “potential” for the future, Franke said.
And her fencers agreed.
“I think we’re going to keep breaking records,” Griffith said. “I just want to keep breaking records and I think that the team will do that.”
Tyson McCloud can be reached at email@example.com.