At Stevenson High School's field house this time of year, many teams are practicing. The basketball team shoots hoops. The dance team practices routines. And there's also a group of young men and women carrying swords, getting ready to practice fencing.
The fencing team has operated at Stevenson for 21 years and is gaining popularity. It has grown from 40 students its first year to more than 80 junior varsity and varsity players this season.
"It's a serious sport once you get past the fantasy of it," senior Ryan McDonough said.
Marla Wolf has been with the team from the beginning. She wanted to create a fencing team at the Lincolnshire school for her daughter Carin, who had competed since age 10.
"I think high school provides students an opportunity to explore different things whether it's classes, sports or an activity. It's a chance to explore what they like and what they find challenging," said Wolf, who has served as assistant coach of the team since its start.
While the sport is rare, several other local schools offer it, including New Trier, Maine West, Deerfield and Highland Park high schools.
Coach Fernando Delgado began fencing in high school after watching "Robin Hood." He joined the U.S. Fencing Association and later won a divisional championship in foil and saber. After coaching since 1977 at the College of Lake County and a local high school, he came to Stevenson in 1999.
Delgado said that like him, 90 percent of his team never tried fencing before joining the team. All students who try out can join the team, eliminating the competitive pressure.
Cynthia Wang recalls watching the fencing team at the co-curricular fair her freshman year.
"I saw blades flying," said Wang, a senior. "There was fast movement and talk about strategy. It's intense. It's something I'd like to try."
While the fencing team is coed, boys and girls do not compete against each other. Fencing is divided into three categories -- epee, foil and saber, which distinguishes the weapon's target area.
Delgado said fencing is a game of physical chess.
"Some individuals only want to attack. Sometimes you have to be able to defend yourself, develop patience and wait for the competitor to attack and look for an opening when appropriate," he said.
Many players like the blend of mental and physical skill that fencing requires.
"There is physicality. You have to be in shape and being fast helps tremendously," senior Ryan McDonough said. "But none of that matters if you don't have the right mental attitude. There is a lot of strategy."
Then there is the intimidation carrying a sword and knowing your opponent will be carrying one as well.
"The armor is more protective than you think. It can absorb the impact, and there is little chance to get cut. You need to have faith in the equipment to protect you," Wang said.
Unlike other team sports at Stevenson, senior Ben Tennenbaum said fencing is both an individual and a team sport.
"You win or lose on your own, not relying on someone else. It's a place for individual triumph," he said. "But there also is team spirit. We win or lose as a team and push ourselves as a team."
Delgado said fencing is more prevalent on the East Coast where 100 schools offer fencing. But in the Midwest, there are 14 schools. Through its 11 matches each season, the team often has to travel several hours such as to Culver, Ind., or Milwaukee. But traveling brings the team closer.
"If you're going to be on a bus with them five to six hours, you'd better like them," he said. "They are together so much they develop friendships."
Team members like competing in a unique sport that sparks interest from friends, and many agree the sport should be offered at more schools.
"It would be great if other schools offered fencing programs so then we could hold meets more often. We need that competition," Wang said.
The women's epee team, led by senior Nicole Crosby, recently took first place at a Great Lakes Conference tournament. And some Stevenson students have earned fencing scholarships to college.
Delgado said he hopes his team will finish first in the conference championships Feb. 5 in Culver, Ind., but he also wants to see his younger fencers become inspired to lead the next generation.
Sophomore Brooke Taylor said she has learned to improve her technique, thanks to the seniors who have mentored her. With their help, she has advanced.
"I'll be the leader for the next generation," she said. "I hope I can give them the same guidance they gave me."