For Theo Varga, substituting to teach a gym class at Princeton High in 2012 set him on a path which helped a new program gain a foothold in the school’s sporting scene.
“We ran out of things to do and we went outside and I had them doing footwork drills for fencing,” recalled Varga.
“One of the teachers saw that and said the school was looking for a fencing coach and I should apply.”
Varga, who fenced at Dickinson College, took that advice and ended up being named as the head coach of the PHS fencing program that fall.
Noting that the team was still competing on a club basis but looking to transition to official team status, Varga hit the ground running.
“I got the official word in November and the season was starting after Thanksgiving,” said Varga.
“I had to jump right into it. At that point, they knew they wanted it to be a team.”
When Varga took the helm there were around 15-20 fencers who had been with the team since its inception in the 2011-12 school year and another 15 or 20 who came to practice to find out what fencing was about. Varga reached out to the middle schools in town and another 25-30 freshmen have joined the program this year.
In Varga’s view, the program took a big step forward when it competed in the District 2 tournament early last year.
“We had never been to the districts, they didn’t know what to expect and neither did I,” said Varga.
It was at North Hunterdon and it was a big event. There were 12 schools and the parents for all the teams. We did well. The girls epee team finished sixth. Melody Ting made the round-robin individual and placed eighth in the district for the epee. There were a lot of students who started the sport that year, they were learning the sport in November and in January they were on the strip. We wanted to show what we could do and learn from the experience.”
With the program gaining official status, there has been progress all around.
“We are trading off with other teams to use the gym, on Mondays and Thursdays, we are in the cafeteria,” said Varga.
“As the team grows, finding a space is going be a challenge. We usually have 25-30 kids at practice. We practice four days a week, although things have been a little chopped up because of the weather. We did the Santelli tournament and we did a weekend of tournaments in Morristown. The girls team posted a win against PDS.”
Varga is seeing a higher level of fencing from his athletes. “A lot of the students, especially the ones who had been there from the start, had fenced with clubs with the Y or Sebastiani,” said Varga.
“We didn’t have to teach them fencing from the ground up. My assistant coach, Sam Blanchard, and I could have those fencers do drills to develop a skill while we take the new fencers and teach them the basics.”
The team’s progress was reflected in its showing earlier this month at the 2014 District competition.
“We took sixth in girls epee, we had two of the top eight,” said Varga, whose epee lineup includes Claire Schultz, Michelle Kyin, and Sarah Golobish.
“Melody Ting and Kate Horvath took sixth and seventh, respectively, in the individual epee.”
At girls’ foil, the Little Tigers have a good foundation in place. “Martine Appel and Danielle Almstead have grown a lot in foil and have really picked up the sport,” added Varga, whose girl foilists include Ursula Blanchard and Architha Sudhakhar.
The girls’ squad boasts some young talent at sabre. “We have a couple newcomers in sabre; Jacqui Hua is a freshman, she competes nationally and has taken part in the Junior Olympics,” said Varga, who has utilized Josephine Mugnier and Mary Ashley Stough at sabre. “She is skilled and she helps the others learn the sport.”
For the boys, the season has involved a steep learning curve. “The boys are having a growing year, we had to start epee and foil from scratch,” said Varga, noting that Jack Stange, Nikhil Vasireddi, Collin Nichols, and Dylan Lim are competing at epee with Seth Sawant, Mitchell Chi, and Alex Rey seeing action at foil.
PHS has shown promise at boys’ sabre as it placed eighth at the districts. “Philip Trevisian and Alex Lai have been very enthusiastic at sabre,” said Varga, who has Jackson Graham and Manus Kreike-Martin at the weapon.
Varga, for his part, has enthusiastically taken on the challenges associated with getting a varsity program up and running.
“I am learning a lot about how a varsity league is set up and what it is like to work with ADs; it has been a learning experience,” said Varga, who credits assistant coach Blanchard with playing a big role in helping the program grow.
“My teaching experience has been in English. I have never taught kids a physical skill. I have worked on devising things that will get them to do the sport.”
The PHS kids have responded well to Varga and each other. “They have been very supportive and encouraging,” said Varga, noting that the school district and Princeton community has provided important support for the program.
“The goal is to be competitive and win but they want to help each other. They show each other encouragement.”