By MICHAEL ALEXANDER, Staff Photographer | Published January 23, 2019
CUMMING—It’s a week after Thanksgiving, two days before the fifth fencing tournament of the season, and members of the Pinecrest Academy fencing team are practicing in the fitness classroom at the Old Atlanta Recreation Center in Suwanee. The recreation center, which is four miles east of the school, is the practice site for the fencing team, since the school gymnasiums are in use by its various basketball teams.
Most of the members are dressed in their white fencing gear. They’re brandishing three-foot long epees, with gloves on their weapon hands, and their faces covered by the black stainless-steel frame and white bib of fencing masks. As he does at every practice, head coach Chad Morris, the school’s chemistry teacher and golf coach, is moving around the room from one pair of sparring fencers to another, observing and offering advice on form and strategy.
Coach Morris’ first experience with the sport was at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he took a fencing class and helped start the school’s fencing club. After completing his master’s degree at Ohio State University, he went to the University of Vermont to pursue his Ph.D. It was at the New England university where he started fencing competitively. While he doesn’t compete as much these days, Morris is a member of USA Fencing and is a national referee.
Morris said his approach to coaching is much like his teaching style.
“I teach them how to do a technique, but I also explain the ‘why’ behind it,” said Morris. “If they understand the reason behind the technique, that provides the fencer the opportunity to make corrections and improve their tactics. I don’t believe in just teaching the physical. It’s about the physical and the mental.”
The origin of the Pinecrest Academy fencing team dates to the 2012-2013 school year, the year before Morris arrived. Pinecrest students Sophia and Raphael Skokanic petitioned for a team and it was granted. In addition to the Skokanics, who fenced outside of school at the Olympic Fencers Club in Johns Creek, there were two other students on the team. Deirdre Donlon, the team’s current assistant coach and the Latin teacher at the school, served as head coach during the inaugural season.
As a sophomore, Jan Rodriguez was one of the other two students to join the first Pinecrest Academy fencing team. Prior to joining, Rodriguez was going to the Olympic Fencers Club everyday learning how to fence.
“Initially I started fencing as a way to exercise and lose weight,” said Rodriquez. Since the team was so small, they weren’t expecting the other schools to take them seriously, but the team competed in tournaments that year with some success.
“I only had two months of fencing experience when I competed in my first tournament at Johns Creek High School,” said Rodriguez. “I finished in the top eight and at that point I knew fencing was the sport for me.”
Today Rodriguez is a junior at the University of Georgia, Athens, studying agricultural engineering. He is also a member of the Fencing Club at UGA, one of the school’s club and recreational sports.
A sport for all students
During that first season of fencing the team practiced in the hallway outside the classrooms. When Morris took over the second year, the team grew to six fencers, three of the original members plus three new ones. They worked on footwork in the hallways and they fenced in the coach’s classroom, once tables were moved away from the center of the room. In 2015 practice moved to cafeteria, and with the team’s continued growth, practice transitioned to the recreation center last year.
This season’s team of 18 fencers consists of 11 females and seven males. It includes six freshmen, seven juniors and five seniors. There is also a freshman manager who plans to fence next school year.
The fencing team attracts all types of students. Some are pure athletes who have been exposed to other sports like baseball, soccer and tennis, but decided to take a chance on fencing. Others may not be as physically athletic, but they have the cognitive skills that provide them with a good grasp of space and control.
“When I heard about fencing, I was interested enough to ask my parents to go with me to hear Coach Morris talk on it,” said junior fencer Trip Smith. “Halfway through his talk I looked at my dad and asked him to sign me up.”
Smith also plays tennis at Pinecrest.
“I have really enjoyed learning about fencing.” Smith feels that the eye and hand coordination used in fencing, as well as the arm and leg strengthening, have made him a better tennis player.
Freshman fencer Julia Hartman decided to join the team because two of her friends, fellow freshmen, were participating.
“I started out knowing nothing about fencing, but I’ve come so far and I feel more confident,” said Hartman. “There’s so much thinking that takes place in fencing. It’s like chess. You have to have a plan in your head.”
Pinecrest Academy is one of 21 member schools in the Georgia High School Fencing League (GHSFL), which has approximately 500 fencers. It’s the oldest high school fencing league in Georgia and it’s the third largest high school fencing league in the United States behind New York and New Jersey. Pinecrest Academy is the smallest school and the only private school in the GHSFL.
At the moment, fencing is not recognized as a Georgia High School Association (GHSA) varsity sport. For several years GHSFL and fencing advocates have worked to raise awareness about the sport in Georgia. Representatives of the sport are planning to meet with the GHSA and state senators in February.
Pinecrest Academy competed in seven regular season tournaments hosted by the GHSFL member schools this season, including the one held at its gym Dec. 15.
After the final tournament of the regular season Jan. 12 at Northview High School in Johns Creek, twelve Pinecrest Academy fencers qualified for the individual fencing championship. The championship will take place at Chattahoochee High School, Johns Creek, Jan. 26.
“Our seventh season has been amazing,” said Morris. “Having eight of our young ladies and four of our young men scoring enough points to be in the top 84 of their respective divisions, is more than I could have expected. My job is to get fencers ready, but our success is because of their hard work, dedication and love for the sport.”