WEST LONG BRANCH – There are many choices available for team sports in high school. Of those sports, some involve individual competitions such as tennis, gymnastics, swimming, wrestling and fencing. What does a student-athlete do when he or she wants to compete but his or her high school does not have a team? The athlete needs to train on their own and find a coach willing to be a supportive supervisor.
Fencer Aidan Johnson of Shore Regional found himself in that situation. With his determination and the help of the Shore Regional athletic manager, he was able to participate and excel as a high school fencer.
“I watched Star Wars and played with toy swords,” explained Johnson of his start in fencing. “I saw an ad in a magazine for a local fencing club and decided to try it out.” That was nine years ago and he is still fencing.
Shore Regional does not have a fencing team, but six years ago Jared Cohen wanted to compete in fencing. Athletic Manager Rich Bohnert stepped up to become the school’s fencing supervisor. Bohnert has an extensive coaching background in baseball and basketball but feels a good coach can coach any athlete.
“I would probably consider myself more of an administrative advisor,” said Bohnert. “My primary responsibilities are to keep the athlete focused on the task at hand and not looking forward to any other opponent.”
Two years later Cohen graduated and Johnson arrived at Shore, already an accomplished fencer. Bohnert agreed to supervise him as well. “I grew up with his parents. I’ve known them forever,” he said. “The comfort of knowing who they were made the decision much easier as they knew my knowledge was limited, but I had experience coaching other sports plus part of my duties as the athletic manager includes coaching when necessary.
“Johnson is a focused, determined and dedicated athlete,” said Bohnert. “He is dedicated to his craft.” This is evident as Johnson travels three times a week to train at Fencers Club in Manhattan. “Any student who takes a train to Jersey City and then Manhattan after school is dedicated.”
To be a successful high school fencer Johnson had some obstacles to overcome. “Not having a school program and not having teammates has been a little bit of a difficulty,” said Bohnert. “With a school team there would be more time on the mat. He has no teammates to practice against and his season consists of two matches (the state qualifier and state championships).”
“Of course it is difficult (not being on a team) because it makes it harder to qualify for the state championship. You also do not have the support of a team, but Shore was very supportive,” said Johnson.
Johnson has a national ranking of A19 by USA Fencing, which is the highest ranking possible. This skill level, his dedication and the support given to him enabled him to overcome these obstacles. “He takes his sport seriously,” said Bohnert.
“He is a very intense, very skilled fencer. He is quick on his feet,” said Bohnert when asked about Johnson’s strengths. “He attacks immediately and doesn’t take anyone for granted.”
As a high school foil fencer, Johnson has been extremely successful. In his freshman year he placed fifth in the state championships. He won the championship as a sophomore and was third as a junior.
He was also selected first team all-state as a sophomore when he went 19-0. “It is very rare for a non-team athlete to make this,” explained Bohnert. He was a third team all-state as a freshman and second team all-state as a junior. This year’s ranking won’t come out for a few weeks.
Any non-team fencer who wants to qualify for the state singles tournament must compete in the state qualifying tournament. The fencers need to submit their experience and rating in order to be accepted to qualify explained. At that point the fencer will be accepted into the tournament. This year the tournament was held at North Hunterdon on Jan. 25.
Johnson made it through the qualifier and into the individual state championships which were held at Livingston on Feb. 27. The NJSIAA individual championships consist of a round of pool play with 22 fencers. The top 14 fencers are then split into two groups of seven for the semifinal round. Upon completion of the semifinals pool play, the top eight fencers move to the finals round which is a round robin format. The fencer with the best record at the culmination of this round is crowned the NJ state individual fencing champion.
Each bout (a single contest) is won by the first fencer to five points (one point for each legal touch) with a three-minute time limit. Johnson was confident he would make it to the finals round. “I felt really good because I fenced well in the pool play,” he said and he easily made it through to the finals round robin.
In the round robin, Johnson’s record stood at 5-1 due to an early loss and his last bout was against defending champion and favorite Jack Woods, whose record was 6-0. Johnson would have to beat Woods to tie him and have any chance at the championship. If Woods won, he would take the gold and be crowned champion and Johnson would earn the silver with the second-place finish.
In the tightly contested bout Johnson came out on top besting Woods, 5-4. “I was very excited because I knew I would get a chance to win states again,” exclaimed Johnson.
Both fencers finished pool play with a 6-1 record. The tie caused some confusion as to who would be crowned the champion. “We originally thought the tie breaker would be based on point differential,” said Bohnert. “After the judges referred to the rulebook, a winner had to be determined by a fence-off (barrage).”
“First I was glad because I had another chance to become state champion.” said Johnson. “It was stressful but I was confident. I was nervous but once you start fencing you don’t think about it. I knew I would have to beat Jack Woods to be state champion.”
The barrage would be determined by the first fencer to five with a three-minute time limit. “The match was back and forth until the last minute when he (Woods) scored two points in a row,” recounted Johnson. Woods came out on top winning, 5-3.
Johnson left the strip disappointed. “It was my senior year and I wanted to go out with a bang but I lost to a good competitor. I fenced well that day.”
“He accepted it, but knew it was going to come down to a fence-off with Jack Woods. Johnson and Woods have been competitors for nine years. They are on the same circuit so there were no surprises,” said Bohnert. “He knew he would have to go through Jack to win.”
When asked if Johnson would continue to be successful, Bohnert said, “Without any question. He is an honor student and a top athlete.” Johnson has committed to Penn State to begin his collegiate fencing career. This year’s team presently ranks fourth in the nation according to ncaa.com and its fencing program is ranked No. 2 in the nation according to superscholar.org.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Penn State,” said Johnson. “Its program and coaches are amazing.”
In addition to fencing at Shore, Johnson travels around the world as part of the 20-member USA Fencing Cadet World Cup Team. He has competed in the Cadet European Circuit traveling to France, Slovakia and Rome. He also competes annually with the Junior Olympics Team and monthly with the North American Cups.
Bohnert and Johnson have great respect for each other. “I’ve had the privilege of coaching one of the better athletes in my career. I’m very proud of him. Going through four years with him has been a great ride. He’s a great kid,” he stated.
Johnson added, “Coach Bohnert was absolutely helpful. He was a friend of my parents and was interested in fencing. He accompanied me to the qualifier and states. He probably supported me the most at Shore.”
With his success in academics and fencing, there is no limit to how far Johnson could go.