COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Ohio State fencing team looks to defend its title at the Midwest Conference Championships in South Bend, Ind., Saturday and Sunday. The men enter the event ranked third in the nation. The women join the men in the Top 10, coming in seventh. The Buckeyes have won the Midwest team title in each of the last seven years.

“The Midwest Conference is always a difficult competition,” sophomore Margarita Tschomakova said. “But we’ve won seven years in a row now and there’s a tradition to continue. We’re ready to fight hard.”

The Buckeyes are led by primarily sophomores and juniors, especially on the men’s team after the departure of graduating seniors Andras Horanyi and Jason Pryor last year. Junior Ben Parkins has stepped up in men’s foil, along with classmate Colin Sutter.

“The team is young, but strong,” Sutter said. “The Midwest Championships is a big test for the team. Notre Dame is strong this year, so it’s going to be a big challenge. But we have some young, up-and-coming fencers on the squad this year that feel like they have something to prove.”

Newcomer Marco Canevari, joining the Buckeyes from Milano, Italy, has already asserted himself as a force for the Buckeyes in his first regular season at Ohio State.

“We are a young but big team with a lot of talent,” the Italian freshman said. “We’re competitive against each other in practice and against other universities in competitions. Ohio State is one of the best programs in the United States. The coaches here are fantastic and the players work hard all of the time.”

On the women’s side, junior Oksana Dmytruk, hailing from Kiev, Ukraine, has been a leader on the strips since she joined the team in 2007.

” We have some very good fencers on our team,” the junior foiler said. “We have prepared well and worked hard for the event. I think we are going to be able to win.”

One of the Ohio State assistant coaches is quite familiar with the Midwest Conference Championships. Just last year, John Friend was a senior leading the Scarlet and Gray into the postseason. Despite coming into the event as a No. 8 seed, Friend performed flawlessly on the way to an individual title in the men’s sabre category.

“Notre Dame is a strong team that is very tough to fence,” Friend said. “We’re aiming for eight in a row and there’s some pressure to keep the streak going. It won’t be easy against the Irish, who are national championship contenders.”

The Midwest Conference championships will renew the rivalry between the Buckeyes and the Fighting Irish. The two perennial powers have combined to win three of the last six national championships, with Ohio State topping third-place Notre Dame by 41 points in 2004, Notre Dame edging the Buckeyes by two points in 2005 and Ohio State claiming the 2008 title by 10 points over the Fighting Irish. Neither team has finished outside of the Top 5 at the national championships since 2002. Last season the Irish and the Buckeyes finished second and third, respectively.

The two teams have met twice this season, once at the NYU Duals and once at the Northwestern Duals. The Ohio State men lost both times, falling 16-11 at Northwestern and falling short in a heartbreaking 14-13 decision in New York. The Ohio State women also dropped both bouts, falling 15-12 at Northwestern and 16-11 at the NYU Duals.

Three members of the Ohio State fencing squad returned to Columbus after competing in the Junior Olympics in Memphis, Tenn.

The top finisher for the Buckeyes was sophomore Eric Gurnowski, who took 11th in the junior men’s epee category. Joining Gurnowski in the category was Trevor Pedersen. The freshman from Katy, Tex. placed 39th out of 208.

Sophomore Emily Cheng was the lone female competitor for the Scarlet and Gray at the event. Cheng finished 33rd out of 111 in the junior women’s sabre division.

The Buckeyes travel to Evanston, Ill., March 13-14 to compete in the NCAA Regional Qualifier. The event serves as a qualifier for the championships, where up to two fencers from each weapon and 12 total are allowed for each team.

The 2010 NCAA Championships take place March 25-28.