The West Milford High School 2019-20 Fencing Program had its most successful season in over a decade, with two squads qualifying to compete in the states competition this year.
This was an amazing feat, since the Highlanders Fencing program nearly folded only a year ago.
"We're so proud of these kids. They've worked hard and supported each other all season," boys Coach David Gerold said. "They're a great group of kids, and it was a pleasure to coach them this year. It's a young team with a lot of potential.”
From turmoil to triumph
The Highlanders Fencing Team experienced turmoil in recent years, with three complete coaching changes over the past three years alone.
Last year, the girls varsity team struggled to even have enough fencers for meets, which left them often starting out with a negative score before they even stepped onto the strip.
The girls team went 0-13 for the 2018-19 season, unable to win a single meet.
Its records for the previous two seasons were similar, with the 2017-18 season ending at 2-9, and the 2016-17 season ending at 0-12.
Meanwhile, last year's boys varsity team was basically left to coach itself due to unavoidable last-minute coaching changes.
The team was grateful when a fencing- inexperienced, but well-meaning teacher stepped into the position as an advisor, just so it could at least still have a team and a season.
The boys finished 1-10 for the 2018-19 season, with its records for the previous two seasons ending the 2017-18 season at 1-8, and the 2016-17 season at 0-7.
At the end of the 2018-2019 season, there was talk of a possible merger with Highlanders rival Lakeland Regional High School.
Lakeland did not have a boys fencing team at all, and the West Milford girls team was short a few fencers.
Once it was realized that in the event of a program merge, all fencing team practices would likely be held at Lakeland because it had a later dismissal time than WMHS, the Highlanders Fencers and parents voiced strong opposition to the idea.
The Highlanders fencing team as a whole decided they would try to recruit more new fencers for this year to keep the program alive, or they would quit the sport if there weren't enough fencers for the program in West Milford.
Fortunately for the program, the students were successful in its recruiting efforts for the 2019-20 season.
Under the guidance of new coaching staff, the team enjoyed the best season its had in years.
The team became cohesive and supportive of team members, and experienced some team, squad, and individual successes along the way.
New season, new coaches, renewed team spirit
WMHS Gym Teacher Daniella Wagenti brought her varsity coaching knowledge and experience (from coaching soccer and lacrosse) to the girls team as its new coach for the 2019-20 season.
Wagenti helped recruit some new female fencers, almost doubling the girls' team roster from the previous season.
Special Class Aide David Gerold, who is also the advisor of the student council and a coach for the tennis team, stepped into the position as the new boys coach.
Both coaches showed their dedication to the sport and to the students on the struggling team by learning the sport - attending open fencing and even taking lessons at Masters Fencing Club in Wayne.
Coach Wagenti ("Wags") used her coaching experience and skills (and the shock value of such a big voice coming from such a little person) to bring back order and discipline to the team; help renew a positive, sportsmanlike competitiveness; and revitalize the fencers' desire to improve their skills and want to succeed.
Coach Gerold brought a warm smile, a soft voice, and a positive attitude and outlook to the team.
He sculpted and fueled the fencers' desire to always perform their best (in everything they set out to do) in order to achieve success.
Gerold also brought back the lost motivation and enthusiasm to the team - he found it buried under previous years of disappointment, negativity, and harsh self-criticism; and he was quick to brush it off and prop it up again any time it began to sink during the season.