Halfway through what has so far been “a successful season,” as its coach described it, the Commack High School girls fencing team has marked a milestone: a win over Ward Melville that marks the end of Ward Melville’s 195-game winning streak and has pushed Commack to the no. 1 spot in the league.
Until Commack’s team achieved the 14-13 victory on Jan. 6, Ward Melville had not lost a game in 10 years, Commack Coach Robert Raeihle said.
“Finally we’re moving out of the shadow of Ward Melville,” Raeihle said.
Holding an 8-0 record, the team is undefeated this season as of press time on Tuesday.
The 36-girl team – a larger team than the typical 27-girl group, Raeihle noted – is diverse.
“I have a very strong epee squad, I have an experienced foil group, and I have a very young and talented saber group, so they’re giving us good balance across the board,” he said, citing the balance as the reason for the team’s success.
His decision to keep a larger team than is typical came of the athlete turnout for tryouts. There were athletes who were talented academically and athletes who were figure skaters and could perform impressive footwork.
“It’s very much a thinking man’s/woman’s sport,” he said.
The epee squad is the most senior group, with three seniors competing at “a very high level” and holding claim to national ranking, “anchored” by Chantel Yang. Yang is a two-time county champion going for her third county championship title with a 12-1 record, Raeihle said.
Meanwhile, the freshmen and sophomores are “really stepping up,” Raeihle said, and bringing an energy and a positivity that he has not seen in recent years.
“There’s a great camaraderie with this team this season – something that I have not seen in a while,” he said.
The girls have sleepovers and pasta parties and keep away from drama, he said, creating a familial atmosphere within what “at times can be a very solitary sport.”
“This team has a very, very clear direction and a very team-oriented focus,” he said. “They’re willing to do whatever they need to do to be successful as a team and as a family.”
Junior Gabby Musto, who is on the saber squad, has been on the team since she was in the eighth grade.
“Being on the team is such an honor, honestly,” she said. “It’s just so much fun… It’s just like a family to me.”
In past years, she said, the team was not like a family; it was a group of girls working toward separate goals. Senior epee squad member Erin O’Neill shared the sentiment, saying that the difference in the team this year is “so obvious.”
“In the past, it’s always been just a bunch of girls who show up to practice, fence, work out together,” she said. “We’ve never gotten this kind of caring from each other.”
There are pajama parties and supportive cheers now at competitions, she said; there is friendship.
Senior Sam Abbott, also on the epee squad, has been on the team for four years.
“We’ve never had an underclass group that’s so willing to just go out and scream for us to win bouts,” Abbott said. “I love them [my teammates]. And I would say that even if they didn’t have embarrassing pictures of me.”
While the team has bonded, it acts as a competitive unit. The girls cheer each other on as they take down opposing teams.
“Beating Ward Melville was probably one of the greatest experiences of my life,” said senior Nicole Michaels, a foil. “It was just nice for us to just do it together… Each squad had a strategic part in [the win].”
Team “veterans” likely feel the weightiness of this particular win to a greater extent, she said, but she hopes that the younger girls feel it, too. Now that Commack has ended the Ward Melville winning streak, the girls can see Ward Melville as just another team and not an omnipresent threat, Michaels and Musto said.
Their coach has his own personal stake in the win. Raeihle is a Commack graduate and fencing team alumnus himself – he graduated Commack North in 1988, having fenced for the Commack team from 1984 through graduation.
“I tell the kids… I’ve been there. You know, I’ve been in the same space fencing, so I feel the same anxiety and excitement that they feel,” said Raeihle, who hit his 100th win as a coach last year. “I still feel a very, very strong sense of pride and I feel a sense of responsibility.”