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Nearly Foiled by Lack of Support, Fencing Team Triumphs

Everyday from 4:00-6:00 in the cafeteria of John F. Kennedy Middle School the Northampton High School  fencing team practices strenuously. Upon approaching their practice site one may hear the clashing of swords, beeping of buzzers, and resounding commands of “fence!”

Few know that the NHS fencing team, generally unrecognised and unfunded, is also the only fencing team in Western Massachusetts. Despite facing obstacles such as equipment expenses, transportation costs, and little recognition from administration, NHS has managed to produce a highly competitive team for the past 35 years.

The team has been doing well thus far in the season, and this past weekend the boys foil squad went 2-2 at a tournament in Boston. Team captain Jonah Herzog-Arbeitman has lost just one bout and senior fencer Jonathan Minoff has won about 80% of his bouts, according to coach RJ Ferullo. Women’s epee squad captain Megan Stowe-Thurston said she credits much of the team’s success “definitely to our coach, he’s a huge part of the team.”

This season is coach Ferullo’s tenth season with NHS and evidently he has been doing his job well, as the team has placed within the top five at States in the past couple years, and his women’s sabre teams won the Massachusetts High School State Championship in 2011 and 2012. Junior fencer Ronnie Schwaller characterized Ferullo as “completely amazing.”

Ferullo, however, said the team primarily thrives on a peer-teaching dynamic. “One of the best parts of this team is that the more experienced people are able to help run practice, teach others what they need to do with their weapon, and teach others what the culture of the team is,” Ferullo said. Schwaller agreed, “the peer teaching…is just kids teaching other kids, which I like a lot.” There are only “a few returning fencers, and a lot of new, first-year fencers,” said Ferullo, but the team as a whole, and newcomers especially, relies on guidance from those more experienced.

One of the fencing captains this year is senior fencer Jonah Herzog-Arbeitman. Herzog-Arbeitman started fencing in seventh grade and joined the team as a freshman. He has watched the team evolve over the years, and said “the level of interest has increased…[the team] is growing pretty steadily.”

Senior fencer Megan Stowe-Thurston started fencing her sophomore year, and became captain of the womens epee squad this year. Stowe-Thurston said that, unlike the boys team, “the girls team is kind of lacking size-wise…we’re actually missing an entire women’s squad this year.”

Both the mens and womens teams travel to either Boston or Concord nearly every weekend for competition. They are required to carpool, as they aren’t granted any funding for bussing from the administration. If fencing were considered a varsity sport, getting money for transportation would be a much easier task, but, as Herzog-Arbeitman noted, “the new Athletic Director doesn’t recognize us [as a varsity sport]…right now, we don’t really know where we stand.” However, fencers take advantage of the long car rides as “team-bonding time…or sometimes nap-time,” said junior fencer Ariana Burch.

The same problem presents itself with regard to equipment. “Funding for equipment comes from yearly dues…out of each of our pockets,” Herzog-Arbeitman said. Each fencer individually pays $200 upfront, and this encompasses all equipment and competition fees for the season. However, Ferullo has been known to help out with costs; if anyone is unable to pay, he offers financial support.

Junior fencer Maya Martin-Gonzalez also noted the benefits of fundraising: “we do car washes, and sometimes stand outside of the Northampton Recycling Center. We make close to $300 every time.”

Ferullo said that most of the season so far has been “a learning experience for the majority of the team.” While they haven’t won a lot of full team competitions, NHS has been “doing really well on an individual basis,” said Ferullo.

Herzog-Arbeitman hopes to place “third in States as a team” and Ferullo is shooting for fourth or fifth. “The competition is strong, so it’ll be a challenge,”said Ferullo.

“If all goes well…this could be one of our best years,” said Herzog-Arbeitman.