Mike McGinn knew something special was possible when his two best female fencers ran up and announced they no longer were his two best female fencers.
“We have a new ‘A,’ ” the girls exclaimed in a proclamation that might not have made sense to the rest of student body, faculty and administration at Moorestown Friends School but was big news to McGinn, the fencing coach.
Seniors Chloe Chen and Carolyn Feigeles knew what it meant that sophomore Rachel Liu, a transfer from Moorestown High School, was joining the Foxes’ fencing team. For one thing, it would be a “demotion” of sorts for the 12th graders.
But the girls saw the big picture as clearly as they anticipate opponents’ thrusts and parries in fast-paced sabre competition.
So, too, did McGinn, who for the last seven years has directed the only girls’ high school fencing program in South Jersey. (He also coaches the boys’ team, which has one South Jersey rival in St. Augustine Prep.)
And assistant coach Ryan Buckley, a former standout fencer at St. John’s University, knew what Liu’s arrival meant, as well. Which is why he commutes nearly 90 minutes each way nearly every day to work with the fencing team in the little gym on the second floor of the athletic facility on the campus of the little private school that was founded in 1785.
“I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think the girls could do this,” said Buckley, 26, who is in his first year as McGinn’s assistant.
What those close to the program suspected was in the wind that summer day when the seniors broke the news to McGinn at the annual school picnic has become reality in winter: Liu has joined with Chen and Feigeles to form perhaps the best scholastic sabre squad in New Jersey, earning the first district title for a female team in program history and setting their sights squarely on a state crown.
The trio won the NJSIAA’s District 2 crown Jan. 28 at North Hunterdon. They will return to the same site Feb. 25 as one of the favorites to become the first female squad from Moorestown Friends to win a state fencing title.
“We think we can do it,” Chen said. “We have a lot of confidence, a lot of belief in each other.”
Buckley, who spikes his technical instruction with heavy doses of old-school motivation, expresses little doubt about the girls’ potential.
“That’s my expectation,” Buckley said of winning a state title. “They put the time in. They stay late; they work at it. They’re among the most technically skilled, most intelligent high school fencers I’ve ever coached. And they ask me a million questions.”
On the road
The sport is demanding — physically, mentally, every way. Chen and Liu left practice at the school on Main Street in Moorestown at 5 o’clock on Wednesday to ride nearly two hours to their club team’s practice in the Bergen County area.
Long trips are part of the deal for Moorestown Friends’ fencers. The team must travel significant distances to compete, as every other squad in the state (except St. Augustine Prep) is in Princeton or farther north.
“On the weekends, we’ll leave at 5:30 a.m. and get home around 7:30 p.m.,” McGinn said.
Feigeles and Chen started fencing in eighth grade, along with senior Chloe Jones, mostly on a whim.
“We thought, ‘Why not?’” Feigeles said. “We were looking for something to do, and we thought we would try it. We fell in love with it. Now we call ourselves ‘The Three Musketeers.’ ”
Chen is enamored of the sport’s mix of physical and mental demands.
“So much work goes into it,” Chen said. “It’s way more than people realize.”
Feigeles said she always thinks she’s in shape after soccer season. Feigeles, Chen and Jones were members of the Foxes team that won a share of the Non-Public B state title in the fall.
Then fencing begins.
“It’s so hard on your legs,” Feigeles said. “I’m always like, ‘Oh, I have my soccer legs. I’m tough. I’m strong.’ No. My legs are on fire when I start fencing.”
Buckley said the physical demands of the sport sometimes are overlooked by outsiders.
“These girls work crazy hard — not just for fencers, for athletes,” Buckley said. “That’s a distinction that’s often lost.”
There are about 35 athletes, boys and girls, on the Moorestown Friends fencing team. Competitors usually focus on mastering a single weapon — sabre, foil or epee.
Sabre is the most fast-paced and technical of the disciplines, with bouts to five points usually lasting less than two minutes. Fencers score a point by touching an opponent with their weapon.
“Some people call it ‘physical chess,’” Chen said of the competition along the playing surface, or strip, that’s about 50 feet long and five feet wide.
Feigeles, 17, who lives in Burlington Township, plans to fence at Lafayette College. Chen, 17, who lives in Lumberton, plans to fence at New York University.
The two have been strong sabre competitors during their high school careers. But they knew the three-person squad would be able to take that next step into state prominence with the addition of Liu, a 15-year-old from Moorestown.
Liu has been fencing since she was 10, when her older sister Zhefeng took up the sport.
“I was the little sister who got dragged along,” Liu said.
She quickly became one of the state’s top youth fencers. Feigeles and Chen both knew her from club competition, so they sensed what it meant when they heard Liu was transferring to Moorestown Friends for the start of her sophomore year.
“I knew she was going to take my spot” as the A strip, or No. 1 fencer, Feigeles said. “But I was glad for her to take it. I knew she would make us both better fencers, and make us a better squad.”
McGinn said the reaction of Feigeles and Chen to Liu’s arrival underscored the girls’ team-first attitude.
“They were phenomenal,” McGinn said. “They were getting pushed down a spot, but they [couldn’t] care less. They knew what it meant for the team.”
Buckley said the three girls are different in their competitive styles, which make for spirited and productive practice sessions.
“They bring out the best and the worst in each other,” Buckley said.
McGinn said the arrival of Liu, the hiring of Buckley and the continued improvement of Feigeles and Chen have been something of a “perfect storm” for the girls’ sabre squad.
The result was the first district title in program history. On Sunday, the Foxes will get their chance to capture the state title.
“We’ve always been top-10, top-12,” Feigeles said. “Now we think we can prove we’re the best.”