July 3, 2009

From Fencing Novice to Formidable Foe

July 3, 2009

- by Gene Gumbs,
Assistant AD/Communications

The next time a catcher blocks the plate in a softball game with a sword at the ready will be the first time.

So, imagine the trepidation and, perhaps a sense of fear, a former softball player has the first time she steps out on the floor to try her hand at fencing. It's not that she's unaccustomed to contact or competition, but facing off against someone with a weapon is a far cry from her high school career playing basketball, softball, and running track.

Mary Dannegger, a three-sport athlete from The Bronx, came to Sacred Heart four years ago knowing she wanted to continue her athletic endeavors but not sure she had the right stuff for the next level.

"I figured I wasn't good enough to make a Division I team," says the long and lanky Dannegger. "I heard there was a need for fencers and I knew I wanted to continue to play a sport. So, I decided to give it give it a shot and I really liked it."

Needless to say she had a lot to learn. "At first it was hard and a little scary because people can hit you in the face or in the foot," she chuckles. "In the beginning I got really mad and said `don't hit me there!'"

Fortunately for Dannegger, and many of the other first-year fencers that were enlisted to help bolster a fledgling program, she had a patient, enthusiastic and passionate coach in Tom Vrabel who came to Sacred Heart at the start of her freshman year. Vrabel came to the Pioneers with over 30 years of experience both coaching and competing in all three fencing weapons (foil, epee, saber). He had coached at both the high school and collegiate levels and developed several NCAA All-Americans as an assistant at Brown and the U.S. Naval Academy.

"I don't think anyone could have taught me better than he did," Dannegger says. "From day one he explained the whole sport, what to do, the footwork and put me with the right people. I felt very comfortable with him because he's very approachable. He knew what to do to take me from someone who didn't know fencing at all to where I am now."

The first thing Vrabel had to do was to figure out the best weapon for Dannegger to concentrate on. It wasn't without its challenges.

"I started out with foil and that didn't work out too well," she laughs. "Coach Vrabel decided that epee might work out better. Being tall really helps in epee and I have long arms and legs and that was the thing that helped me succeed."

Dannegger took her lumps her first couple of seasons on the piste. The one advantage she and her teammates had was that their success wasn't being judged by wins and losses. What was most important was making progress,

"It probably took me two years to feel completely comfortable," Dannegger says. "After the first year I just went out there and did my thing. There wasn't too much pressure on me because I was just starting out but after the second year I felt like there was more pressure because I starting having success."

Everything came together for Dannegger her final year as a Pioneer. Knowing her career was coming to a close, she expressed a sense of urgency if she was to achieve her goal of making a splash in the Northeast Fencing Conference championships at the end of the season. It didn't get off to a great start.

"I really wanted to have a good last season and, in the beginning, I think I put too much pressure on myself and was pushing myself too hard," she remembers. "The first couple of meets I did just ok but I wasn't getting it and things weren't clicking."

She can't pinpoint the moment when the "click" arrived, but the second half of the year was one success after another. "When I came back from winter break I just started focusing more," she says. "I started doing better in my lessons, putting things together in my head and then doing it on the strip. Somehow meet after meet I kept getting better."

Her performance in the NEFC Championships earned her and four of her teammates a spot in the NCAA Regionals at MIT in Cambridge, MA. Dannegger sat in 11th after the preliminary round, but a 4-1 record in the second round sent her into the epee finals where she eventually finished in ninth place. She just missed out on advancing to the NCAA Championships the following weekend, but Coach Vrabel knew his young fencer had done something special anyway.

"It was an absolutely fantastic result for Mary," he says. "She was the only women in any weapon that made it to the finals that began fencing in college. That is a really great accomplishment for her."

While she expresses pride at her accomplishments during her career, Dannegger is very humble and almost surprised at how far she has come. "I didn't realize I could go out there and beat these people that I thought were better than me," she says. "I am so new to this sport and some of them have been fencing for a long time."

Now that she's earned her Bachelor's degree in Art from the University, Dannegger is hoping to land a job in her native New York with a marketing agency. It does not, however, mean she plans to give up her new passion of fencing. She in a member of the United States Fencing Association and has even earned a rating.

"I definitely plan to keep fencing," she says. "I went from being unclassified in the beginning to "B" (A is the highest). There are a lot of clubs in New York City and I live just outside there. I really enjoy it and competing with people as young as 15 and as old as 70."

Dannegger believes her decision to join the fencing team at Sacred Heart was perhaps the most important decision she made.

"If I didn't end up doing this I might have transferred," she states. "I might have done a club sport perhaps, but actually being on a Division I team and playing against other schools sport was amazing. I met lifelong friends from this team and others that I competed against."

The other thing that Dannegger is proud of is that she leaves the women's fencing program having had a huge part in making it one of the most respected teams in the Northeast.

"It's changed so much in the four years I have been here and it's grown tremendously," she says. "I am really happy I was a part of helping it grow. Tom is a great recruiter and I see nothing but great success in its future."

"I had a couple of goals that I wanted to achieve once I became a member of the team," she says. "One was to get a rating and the other is to make all conference."

Check and check. Mission accomplished.