Thursday, April 24, 2014

Chris Elsberry: Central fencers thriving in a sport that's rare in Fairfield County

Sunday, February 5, 2012

BRIDGEPORT -- The clock was ticking down -- 14 ... 13 ... 12 seconds remaining.

Carolyn Roach and her opponent were deadlocked at 14 points each in the finals of the epee division in the East Lyme Winter Tournament. The match had gone back and forth, and now, in the waning seconds, someone would have to make a bold move if they wanted to win.

Roach made that move.

Striking her opponent with her blade just before time ran out, Roach won the championship match and captured the first-place trophy for Central's fencing team.

Yes, you read that right. Central has a fencing team. In fact, the Hilltoppers have had a fencing team for almost a decade, but only a few know about them. They practice a couple of hours each night in one of the small auxiliary gyms. They don't play a lot of matches -- there are only three high schools in Fairfield County that have teams -- and they raise every penny they need to maintain or upgrade their equipment through private donations.

Yet, they carry on. And in fact, they're thriving.

"We have 28 kids on the team that when we have competitions, we split into varsity and junior varsity," said Central coach Paul Decerbo, who took the job two years ago when Amy Ficke decided not to return to the job. "Every year, we start with a big rush of kids wanting to fence, and consequently, you end up with a core team, through academic loss or moving onto other sports or they lose interest. But the ones that are interested, they stick with it and they really shine."

Like Roach, who first started fencing at the age of 12 and has been in love with the sport for the past five years. Not only did she win the epee division at that East Lyme tournament, she won four straight matches in doing so against some very solid competition.

"My championship match was 14-14 with 14 seconds left, there was so much pressure," she said. "I thought I'd missed but the judge called it a hit and I won. My teammates were jumping up and down but I had to control my excitement."

The fencing team was created at Central in 2003 by Dr. Tom Vrabel, a former biology teacher. In 2005, he left to become the head coach at Sacred Heart University, and Ficke, a former state champion at Fairfield Ludlowe who later fenced at Penn State, took over. Decerbo became coach only after going through an intense preparation process.

"The previous coach wasn't available, so I stepped forward and volunteered," he said. "But first I had to take my AED training. I had to take my first aid training, I had to complete my concussion management training and get my coaching certificate from the state. So, because of that, we started last season a little bit late but did competitively OK."

Decerbo is assisted by trainer Joe Rudmann, who joined Ficke in 2007 and has "been invaluable," Decerbo said, in working with the program.

"I used to fence with Amy a long time ago and it's fun to help the kids do something and learn something," Rudmann said. "It's a sport that teaches you how to be an athlete. No one is born knowing how to fence and you can be a non-athlete and still participate. That's why I first joined, because you can teach kids how to fence and how to become good. And if they start early enough, they can be world champions. But they have to have the desire."

There are three classifications of fencing -- epee, foil and sabre. Epee uses a long sword and the whole body is the target.

"I really like epee," Roach said. "With epee, you don't have to have a certain target, you just hit anywhere. You have to be smart and try not to jab because you'll probably break your blade, so you have to lunge and extend."

With just 25 teams across the state, matches are few and far between.

On Feb. 11, Central will compete in a tri-meet with Fairfield Warde and the Hale-Ray School at Warde. And on March 17, the Hilltoppers will host their annual St. Patrick's Day tournament.

"This is all about the kids. Not only do we try and teach them to fence but we also teach them to referee matches," Decerbo said. "We want to give them the whole experience. The skills that I've been able to see the kids learn after they're taught ... it's rewarding. Very, very rewarding."

Contact Chris Elsberry at celsberry@ctpost.com. Follow at Twitter/elsctpost. Find Elsberry's blog "My Two Cents" at http://blog.ctnews.com/elsberry/