By Sue Botos
What’s a pirate without his or her sword? For one group of Rocky River athletes, the weapon is a standard part of their gear, but in the form of a foil, epee or saber.
“Christian, make the riposte! Nice epee, Alex!” called out coach Sara Kass as she bounded through a recent practice session of the Rocky River High School Fencing Club. Kass seemed to have as much energy as her team members, who took turns on the “strip,” or fencing area, fine-tuning their parries, ripostes, lunges and other maneuvers.
“They call me ‘Kick-Ass Kass,’” the owner of Cyrano’s Place, a fencing school in Lakewood, said with a laugh. In fact, smiles seemed to abound at the practice session held in the high school commons.
“It’s really entertaining,” stated first-year fencer, freshman Christian Alexander. Kass added that her squad, which has been in place at the high school for about seven years, consists of “a lot of newbies this year.”
It was hard to tell the rookies from the veterans as the athletes paired up for practice bouts, executing swift moves, with touches signaled by an electronic device attached to the fencers’ protective equipment. Each weapon has a different target area: the torso for foil, the entire body for epee and everything from the waist up for saber. As junior Alex Hafko searched through a pile of masks, Kass explained that under new rules, the lower half of the mask has been added as a foil target. “It’s been a bit of an issue,” she said.
Kass said that while some students have their own gear, most is provided by the school. Team assistant Deb Furry said the squad was recently awarded a $250 grant from the PTA for equipment. Furry said she became interested in the sport after taking lessons from Kass with son D.J., now a sophomore member of the Pirate squad. She added that Kass eventually talked her into helping out.
“This is a good sport for kids who may not be super athletes,” Furry said.
Kass agreed, adding that size and strength take a back seat to strategy in fencing. “It’s kind of like playing offense and defense at the same time. It teaches the decision making process. You have to assess, chose and execute in a split second,” she explained.
Calling her group “the creme de la creme of personalities,” Kass is quick to elaborate on their successes. Pointing out Gabby Rufus, Kass said that Rufus consistently finished last in bouts as a freshman, but ended up third in the state. (Kass explained that season records do not count toward a berth at states, which are open to all high school fencers.)
Junior Alexis Burnley has also seen her share of success, and looks at fencing as a diversion from the usual school concerns. “It’s different when you’re fencing. You can just let go of your own worries,” she stated.
Because so few schools offer fencing, Shaker Heights and West Geauga being the closest districts, Kass said the sport can’t be granted varsity status. “We created a kind of unofficial league,” she said.
Kass said that there are no age or gender restrictions for local meets, and that her squad sometimes faces adults. She added that there are no divisions based on gender until the state level.
On March 9, the Pirates will host the Rocky River Invitational at Goldwood Primary School. Kass explained that the event is open to any fencer in grades 9 to 12. She said athletes from as far away as Indiana, Michigan and maybe New York are expected. “Whoever wins the Rocky River invitational usually wins states,” Kass noted.
Kass mentioned that her 7-year-old daughter has been “known to fence,” but is not yet serious about the sport. Asked if she has any other children, Kass smiled at her hard-working squad. “You’re looking at them,” she said.
UPDATE: In their first competition of the season, the Pirates turned in a good showing at the Wadsworth Fencing Club Tournament on Feb. 2, with four fencers finishing in the top 13 in a field of 25, including Chris Moeller (6th) and Gabby Ruffus ( 8th).
Coach Sara Kass said she was pleased with all of her fencers’ performances, including the “newbies”. “As coach I can easily say I am very happy and encouraged by the performance (and results) of everyone who fenced. This bodes well for a strong season,” she commented.