February 15, 2006: Sports
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Princeton fencing coach Michel Sebastiani does not remember what first made him think about coming to the United States. Maybe it was the jazz music — the great Dixieland recordings he listened to as a boy in North Africa — or perhaps it came from interactions with Americans living abroad. From childhood, he dreamed of coming to America.
“People would say, out of ignorance probably, ‘Americans don’t need you. They don’t need professors, they don’t need musicians, they don’t need athletes,’” recalled Sebastiani, a French national. “Well, in fencing they did.”
Sebastiani learned to fence in France’s elite government academies and came to the United States in 1963 to coach women’s fencing at Cornell. After moving on to NYU, Brooklyn College, and his own academy in Houston, he found a more permanent home at Princeton in 1982. Since settling in at Jadwin Gymnasium, Sebastiani has added to the tradition of the men’s program and built a successful varsity team on the women’s side. At the end of this season, his 24th at Princeton, the fencing master will retire from collegiate coaching.
Princeton’s next coach will have sizeable shoes to fill, but the transition cannot compare to the situation Sebastiani encountered in his first season. Stan Sieja, who had led the Tigers to national prominence in his 36 years as coach, died in October 1982, weeks before the season’s start. Sebastiani, who coached Sieja’s son Don, a national champion at Cornell, had known the elder Sieja well. In spite of the difficult circumstances, he believed he could build on his predecessor’s success. “I knew we would not have much time to practice like in scholarship schools,” he said, “but I knew that I could compensate [by] teaching scientifically to people who liked to listen and would be ready to work.”
Sebastiani’s results have justified his confidence. The Princeton men have won six Ivy League titles and four Intercollegiate Fencing Association championships under his direction, while the women’s program, which became a varsity team in 1988, has won three Ivy titles and two National Intercollegiate Women’s Fencing Association championships. Sebastiani’s fencers have reached the final round of the NCAA Champion-ships more than 100 times, with four winning individual titles.
Jacqueline Leahy ’06, who placed third in the women’s foil at last year’s NCAA Championships, said that Sebastiani’s success comes from his meticulous study of the game. “He’ll make a whole folder of things you need to work on and draw diagrams of how your position might be changed a little to help your game,” she said. “I appreciate that he’s gone home and thought about what I need to do. He’s very dedicated to the team.”
Diagrams are something of a trademark for Sebastiani, according to Paul Epply-Schmidt ’83, the team captain in Sebastiani’s first season. Epply-Schmidt, who had taken a year off after his sophomore year to train for the U.S. nationals at Sebastiani’s academy in Houston, recommended Sebastiani for the Princeton job. Now a teacher and fencing coach at Princeton Day School, Epply-Schmidt recalled his mentor’s approach as “professorial.” “He’s a big believer in the fundamentals he learned,” Epply-Schmidt said, “and that’s how he teaches.”
Though Sebastiani’s teaching style has not changed much over the years, the coach said that collegiate fencing has, turning into a “marketplace” in which recruiting sometimes seems more important than instruction. Scholarship schools have dominated the NCAA championships, winning the last 11 team titles, and while Princeton’s top individuals still compete with the nation’s best, its team cannot match the depth of the leading scholarship programs. “In the past, when I was at Cornell and when Coach Sieja was here, we would fence with what we have, with who we have,” he said. “At Cornell, I managed to win three national championships with girls that started [fencing] in a physical education class. We beat the scholarship schools. We beat everyone. Now, if I had only walk-ons, I could not even try to compete.”
Sebastiani will look to cap his career by adding another NCAA champion or two to Princeton’s list in March, with Leahy and men’s epee star Ben Solomon ’06 representing the Tigers’ top hopes. And when Sebastiani leaves the University, he plans to stay in Princeton to teach the next generation of fencers at an academy he began nearby and help raise the sport’s profile in his adopted country. The United States has about 25,000 licensed fencers, compared to 250,000 in Sebastiani’s native France, and the disparity shows in international competition. Said Sebastiani, who has coached several U.S. Olympians, “We still have a lot of work to do.”
The men’s hockey team’s remarkable 3-0 win over No. 7 Cornell at Baker Rink Jan. 14 marked the Tigers’ third upset of a nationally ranked opponent in less than three weeks. Goalie Eric Leroux ’06, in photo, saved 35 shots in Princeton’s first shutout against the Big Red since 1964. Darroll Powe ’07 scored two goals for the Tigers.
Photo by Beverly Schaefer
By David Baumgarten ’06
Television commentators are fond of saying that playing basketball against Princeton is like taking a trip to the dentist: regardless of the outcome, it’s not something to look forward to. But this winter, most visitors to Jadwin Gymnasium have experienced the equivalent of a routine checkup.
Visitors to the Robins Center in Richmond, Va., on the other hand, have left feeling like they underwent a procedure more along the lines of, say, a root canal. The man to blame for the pain? Chris Mooney ’94, first-year head coach of the University of Richmond men’s basketball team and the latest of Pete Carril’s disciples to make a name for himself on the sidelines running the “Princeton offense.”
“Princeton runs it well,” said Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, who watched his Demon Deacons breeze by the Tigers, 61–42, Dec. 17 and barely scrape past Richmond’s Spiders, 47–40, Dec. 22, “but Richmond runs it well with better guys.”
In truth, Mooney’s team thrives on defense. Employing an aggressive matchup zone scheme — which Mooney helped current Princeton head coach Joe Scott ’87 develop during their four years together at Air Force — Richmond ranked first in the nation in scoring defense through Jan. 16. The Spiders’ 9-7 start included near upsets of top-25 teams Louisville and Wake Forest. Not bad for the fourth-youngest head coach in Division I.
Then again, Mooney is far more experienced than the average 33-year-old. Long before the lanky Philadelphia native came to Princeton, he knew he wanted to coach. So while he made the most of his time on the court, twice earning team MVP honors, he also spent four years picking Carril’s brain.
After graduating, Mooney took the reins at Lansdale (Pa.) Catholic High School at age 22, staying for three years before moving on to Division-III Beaver College (now Arcadia University). When Scott took over at Air Force in the fall of 2000, Mooney joined him as associate head coach, helping Scott transform a moribund program into a top-25 team and taking over when Scott returned to Princeton in April 2004.
A year later, Richmond came calling for Mooney, and the school’s similarities to Princeton — strong academics, a beautiful campus — made taking the job an easy decision. His first eight months have been a “whirlwind,” he said, but his players have adapted to the Princeton basketball philosophy.
That philosophy is a way of life for Mooney, even if he’s noticeably more laid-back and less cranky than Carril or Scott. When he mentions his hope that hard work and defense become “staples of Richmond,” there’s no disguising his lineage.
And the trademark raspy voice? Not yet, but after a couple more decades of coaching, he may yet develop one — not to mention a legacy of his own.
David Baumgarten ’06 is a frequent PAW contributor.
On Nov. 14, two days after the football team’s final home game, crews began removing the grass from Princeton Stadium to make way for artificial turf, and by early January, the new surface was ready for action. By adding FieldTurf, a mix of polyethylene fibers and sand and rubber granules that simulates natural grass, the University will be able to use the stadium more often without fear of wearing out the field, said Michael Cross, senior associate director of athletics. The University thanked Bill Powers ’79 and the Princeton Football Association for backing the project. Cross did not disclose the cost of the installation.
Meagan Cowher ’08 scored a career-high 32 points in the WOMEN’S BASKETBALL team’s Jan. 13 win at Columbia and added 27 more in a win over Cornell the following night. The Tigers opened 3–0 in the Ivy League, including a Jan. 7 win at Penn in which Becky Brown ’06 scored 28 points and moved into third place on Princeton’s career scoring list.
Clutch free throws by Scott Greenman ’06 and Edwin Buffmire ’07 helped MEN’S BASKETBALL outlast Columbia 68–64 in overtime Jan. 13. Princeton lost 57–49 to Cornell Jan. 14 to drop to 1–1 in Ivy games.
In MEN’S TRACK AND FIELD, freshman Duane Hynes set a school record in the heptathlon at the Princeton Relays Jan. 15, earning provisional qualification for the NCAA Championships.
WOMEN’S HOCKEY won at Colgate Jan. 13 and at Cornell Jan. 14 to remain tied for first place in the East Coast Athletic Conference.