DURHAM, N.C. — Two members of the North Carolina fencing team qualified for this year's NCAA Fencing Individual National Championships. Sophomore Eli Lippman represented UNC in men’s épée on Thursday and Friday, while sophomore Sophia Kovacs competed in women’s sabre on Saturday and Sunday at the competition on Duke's campus.
Eli Lippman, men’s épée
Out of 24 men’s épée fencers, Lippman finished last, ending with five wins in 23 bouts.
Head coach Matt Jednak said Lippman’s fencing style is methodical, focusing on using his blade on an opponent’s blade to create openings to touch. Lippman's focus is to look not just at how he was moving but how his opponent was, too.
The distance created between two fencers is always changing, but Jednak said controlling the distance can create an environment that is easier to earn points. In terms of such control and patience, Jednak felt Lippman performed well.
“We did a great job in the first three quarters of [the bout],” Jednak said. “We just have to be able to make sure that we're following through at the end.”
Competing in his first NCAA Championship, Lippman admitted he was too tense at times. He put too much strength on touches that just needed direction and telegraphed his next moves by getting too big. In tight situations, he abandoned what he wanted his next action to be.
“In the [third round], I realized that I was being too serious with myself,” Lippman said. “And I am, relatively, not the most serious person.”
In rounds four and five on Friday, Lippman committed to moving more freely by bouncing around more while keeping his actions direct instead of big. He couldn’t stave off a last-place finish, but the tournament provided valuable experience for the sophomore.
“There always comes in an athlete's career that they put the pressure on himself to validate why they're here,” Jednak said. “But no matter how much you say it, specifically being his first time here, he's got to experience it.”
Sophia Kovacs, women’s sabre
Out of 24 women’s sabre fencers, Kovacs finished ninth with 13 wins in 23 bouts, securing her an All-American honor.
Despite the success, the sophomore wanted more.
“I felt like I really could have gone to the next level,” Kovacs said. “So it’s good, but it’s not good enough for me.”
By "next level", Kovacs meant earning a trip to the semifinals by placing in the top four. Kovacs beat three of the four eventual semifinalists, but it wasn’t until the second round where Kovacs looked like she could compete for a top four spot.
There, Kovacs won four straight bouts — more than the three she won in the seven-bout opening round — including one over 2022 national champion Elizabeth Tartakovsky. Before her postgame interview, Jednak gave Kovacs a big hug while telling her, “I could see you come alive” in the second round.
Small steps. Crisp change of direction. Decisive attacks. Jednak has been around long enough to know when a switch flips, and he saw that with Kovacs’ second round.
“She’s a grinder; she does exactly what she needs to in the moment,” Jednak said. “She is one of the strongest people I've ever worked with on raw strength and athleticism, and when she turns it against the opponent, it's a tough day for them.”
Kovacs continued the grind into Sunday, going down in multiple bouts and coming back to win, including a 5-4 victory against eventual national champion Nora Burke. Kovacs said Burke had “destroyed” her in previous matches before this tournament so she needed to combat her nerves.
“I know I have done this so many times,” Kovacs said. “You know what’s gonna happen, and if you can force the motion of it, you can be successful.”
Ninth place may not have satisfied Kovacs, but she showed she could hang with the best sabres in the country. When she went to sit down after her win over Burke, Jednak leaned over to congratulate her, calling her work "magical."
“Can I be you when I grow up?” Jednak said.
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