LIVINGSTON, NJ — In his final season as the Livingston High School (LHS) boys fencing coach, George Janto led the Lancers to their first-ever state title in addition to surpassing several other milestones during the historic season—including defeating the top program in the state and earning the overall team title in the country’s largest high school fencing tournament.
The Lancers had the added challenge of being pinned against two-time defending champion, St. Peter’s Prep, in the state tournament finals. But with stellar performances from Livingston fencers—including junior Fillip Kizhner, who won all three of his bouts for a crucial Livingston lead, and senior Max Shen, who came back from a 4-1 St. Peter’s lead to take the win in his saber matchup—the Lancers emerged victorious for the first state fencing title in LHS history.
The Lancers also took the overall team title at the Cetrulo Tournament in January, finishing first in the sabre category, seventh in the epee and 10th in the foil. With 48 teams in attendance this year, Janto said the tournament is “the largest high school fencing tournament maybe in the world, and certainly in the United States."
“That was a big step,” he said. “When we won that, we started to sense that maybe we were a pretty good team and the sky became the limit.”
For Janto, one of the most satisfying moments of the season was defeating Columbia High School, which he said has had the premier fencing program in the state for nearly 20 years. In fact, Janto earned his first state title as a coach for the Columbia team in 2009 prior to coming to Livingston in 2010.
“For as long as the Livingston fencing team has been in existence, it has never beaten Columbia—boys or girls,” said Janto. “We fence against them pretty regularly, usually once a year, but no matter how good we thought we were, they were unbeatable. This year, in the first dual meet at the beginning of the season, our boys beat the Columbia boys. That would almost be the highlight of the whole season for us.”
On many levels, Janto said the maturity of the team this year is what made the difference, as the Lancers had a “heavily salted senior lineup.”
“We had real leadership," he said. "The seniors really stepped up, showed what they were made of and led by example. They worked hard to make sure that it was a team effort and good results followed."
Seniors this year included epee fencer Maxim Brekham, who Janto said brought in some “really memorable performances” despite not trying out in his first three years; foil fencers Jeremy Huang and Ari Olovyannikov; and sabers Ben Levitt, Max Shen and Sean Kim.
Levitt, the “superstar of the team,” according to Janto, returned to compete for his high school this season after fencing internationally last year, earning second place at the Pan American Championship in Cuba.
With several juniors on the team who will be vying for leading spots next year and a new head coach set to take his place, Janto is confident he is leaving the fencing program in good hands.
“It was a great season with great kids, but there are enough coming back that maybe next year won't be quite as good as this year, but it will certainly not be a failure either,” said Janto. “We are not going to be rebuilding to a point where we won't win anything. I think the program is finally at a point where it replenishes itself with regularity.”
Jeannette Ng, a LHS alumna with a fencing background, will serve for her second season as head coach for the girls next year. Jackson Huemer, who formerly fenced for Columbia alongside Janto’s daughter and served as an assistant coach this year, will take over as head coach for the boys.
“I feel like I accomplished something and I'm leaving something behind that is now firmly established in the school,” he said. “Livingston will become more and more of a fencing power in the state and, without being too egotistical about it, I think some of that is a tribute to [my coaching]. That's not a bad way to go out.”
Coaching Livingston fencing has been an uphill battle for Janto, whose background is in what he called “more traditional sports” like soccer, football, baseball and basketball—or, in other words, sports that are “more team-demanding and revolve around the idea of a team.” A main goal of his over the years has been to turn the LHS fencers into a team, and Janto said he felt that goal come to fruition this season.
“There’s no individuality in [other sports],” said Janto. “Fencing is not that way, but in New Jersey high schools it is—so I spent almost 10 years trying to get the fencers at LHS to think and act like a team, and it wasn’t easy.
“Most of the kids who go out for fencing do not participate in another sport, and they are not particularly strong athletic types—smart beyond belief, but not athletes. So it was important for me to get them to understand what it meant to be a team and to understand what an expectation should be from a coach to his players and vice versa. I felt that by mid-season this year it was coming to pass.
“It amazed me. I never thought I would see it and it was tremendous. That was a big accomplishment for me at Livingston High School.”
As he leaves the LHS program, Janto said his biggest hope is to start seeing more middle schoolers pick up fencing before they get to high school.
He added that fencing in general is a “great sport,” but feels it is particularly special for women and for people with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyper disorder.
For high school girls, Janto said the sport tends to build self-esteem because it measures intelligence and “really brings out the best in young women."
“Most of these kids enjoy the sport because it involves a lot of mental work,” he said. “It's been called ‘Physical Chess’ and there's a reason why that title is pretty accurate.”
For students with ADD or ADHD, Janto said that psychologists have told him fencing is the best sport because it teaches them that they are most effective when concentrating on one particular task.
“It's a really great sport for ADD and ADHD because of the masks,” said Janto. “While you’re on the fencing strip and actually fencing, you have limited vision and you’re focused directly in front of you for three minutes at a time. ADHD kids who tend to be all over the place and are constantly trying to enlarge their field of vision can't do that in fencing.”
High school fencing is a winter sport that begins before December break and typically ends in early March. According to Janto, the LHS program never makes cuts and everyone is welcome to play.
Pictured above (left to right) are: Victor Lopez-Simpson, Matthew Zhang, Aryan Pradhan, Ari Olovyannikov, Fillip Kizhner, Max Brekhman, Jeremy Huang, Ben Levitt, Head Coach George Janto, Max Shen, Sean Kim, Jason King, Rishab Gosalia, Gabe Yecko, Assistant Coach Jackson Huemer