PORT HAWKESBURY, N.S. — It wasn’t a matter of if, but when skip John Morris and fourth Jim Cotter would get back into the groove.
The Morris-Cotter combo — with the front-end tag team of second Tyrel Griffith and lead Rick Sawatsky — proved to have that magic mojo during their previous run in 2013-14 finishing runner-up at both the Olympic Trials and the Tim Hortons Brier.
Morris moved on after that year, but when the band got back together this season, something good was bound to happen. They had their moments earlier, both low and high, from missing the playoffs at the WFG Masters in October to reaching the semifinals at the Meridian Canadian Open just a couple months ago. They were simply due to make it to the next step and that came this past weekend at the Princess Auto Elite 10 capturing their first Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title as a unit.
The Vernon, B.C., team was making its Elite 10 debut and had to adjust to the match play rules, which are different from traditional curling where teams compete to score the most ends, rather than total points, to win the game similar to skins. There was no steep learning curve here though as Team Morris rolled through the field with a 5-1 record en route to the title. Morris, who literally wrote the book on curling fitness, can clear out the house in an instant and Cotter is quite capable of delivering either the perfect draw to the button or wind up with the big swing and smash his way through.
The latter was the case in the last end of Sunday’s final against Brad Jacobs with Morris holding the hammer and the game all square. Morris had several rocks already in the house, however, Jacobs was sitting the critical shot rock. Angle-raising one of their own was the only call; make it and you win the game, whiff and Jacobs steals the title. At first it looked like Cotter had just missed the mark and it was going to sail through the house, but it caught enough to slash their own stone and angle it back to bump the Jacobs rock far enough.
Although no Canadian Team Ranking System points were on the line here, this huge win is a great boost for Team Morris as they target a spot in this year’s Olympic Trials for a chance to represent Canada at the 2018 Winter Games. The 11-time Pinty’s GSOC champ Morris has been to the top before, capturing Olympic gold while playing third on Kevin Martin’s team at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and would love nothing more than to get another opportunity while skipping this squad.
1st End: Win gets Morris into Humpty’s Champions Cup
Before the start of the Princess Auto Elite 10, Morris sat in the production office chatting with photographer Anil Mungal and myself about needing a spot in the Humpty’s Champions Cup, which takes place April 25-30 in Calgary. Of the nine tour teams competing in the Elite 10, his squad was the only one that hadn’t already earned a berth to the season-ending tournament as teams need to claim a big event in order to qualify.
Mungal told Morris to go out, win the Princess Auto Elite 10 and he’s in. Easier said than done, right?
Well, here we are days later and Morris is the Princess Auto Elite 10 champ with a berth locked down in the Humpty’s Champions Cup.
2nd End: Jacobs jumps in Rogers Grand Slam Cup chase
It shouldn’t have been too surprising Morris’s opponent in the final was Jacobs as the match play format works to his team’s strength (literally) too. The Boost National champs from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., made a name for themselves with their strong style although Jacobs also demonstrated he’s able to make those delicate tap shots to score.
Jacobs, who played in his third Pinty’s GSOC final this season, also closed the gap in the Rogers Grand Slam Cup chase cutting Niklas Edin’s lead down to two points. The cup, featuring a $75,000 bonus, is awarded following the conclusion of the WestJet Players’ Championship, but with roughly double points on the line at the fourth and final major of the season, the race is far from the last lap.
3rd End: Stoughton’s still got it
The main thing Jeff Stoughton didn’t want to do was embarrass himself. Stoughton, two years removed from his last competitive curling match, skipped the special Elite 10 Select team featuring third Dave Nedohin, second Nolan Thiessen and lead Jamie Korab.
Fortunately for the legends, the match play format meant if they gave up a big end, it would only be worth one point. The Selects showed no signs of rust and went on a roll winning three consecutive games over Steve Laycock, Brad Gushue and eventual champ Morris to start.
It wasn’t until Stoughton ran into former teammate Reid Carruthers that things cooled down. Carruthers stymied Stoughton twice — during the round robin and again in the quarterfinals — proving the learner is now the master.
Stoughton only lost by two points in both games and kept it competitive, plus, when things didn’t work out he could always be counted on for making it entertaining at least by busting out his signature spin-o-rama move one more time.
Who knows if we’ll see any of the Selects play in the series again, after all there’s a reason why no one ever “retires” in curling, they always “step back."
4th End: Brier burnout?
Four teams stayed put in Atlantic Canada following the previous week’s Tim Hortons Brier in St. John’s, N.L.
Brier winner Gushue, runner-up Kevin Koe, Morris and Jacobs made the short trek down to Port Hawkesbury just days after competing for the Canadian men’s curling championship.
Considering three of those teams reached the semifinals, they clearly weren’t feeling the effects of any Brier burnout. If anything, for the three who qualified, getting back on tour and into the thick of things helped get over the loss. From the group only Gushue fell short of qualifying, by just one point, snapping the team’s Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling playoff streak that spanned an incredible 14 consecutive events. Gushue admitted he was feeling tired following such an emotionally draining victory in his hometown and fulfilling all of the commitments that followed.
Gushue can now take a bit of break before gearing up for the world men’s curling championship, which starts April 1 in Edmonton.
5th End: Carruthers makes sharp turnaround
Carruthers wanted to put on a good show at the Princess Auto Elite 10 given that the title sponsor is also his major supporter as well. With four round-robin games in only a couple days, a slow start can result in an early flight home. Day 1 didn’t go so good for Carruthers with just one point from a shootout loss to Gushue. Carruthers needed five on Day 2 in order to qualify for the playoffs.
The Winnipeg native pulled it off picking up two points in a shootout win over Laycock and got the full three in the aforementioned win against Stoughton to qualify. Another victory over Stoughton pushed Carruthers into the semifinals against Morris, who had earned a bye. Morris was sharper, but Carruthers should be pleased with his team’s turnaround.
6th End: Dunstone steps in on Team Laycock
Perhaps it was a semi-professional tryout contract Matt Dunstone signed. The two-time Canadian junior champion from Winnipeg filled in on Laycock’s Saskatoon squad for the event following second Colton Flasch’s depature earlier this month. Dunstone threw second stones and held the broom in the house when it was Laycock’s turn to throw.
Dunstone has been known for making ridiculous runbacks, so his style of play fit in with the match play format. The word on the sheet was Dunstone was auditioning for a full-time role, but we’ll just have to wait and see whether or not he sticks around with Team Laycock.
7th End: De Cruz qualifies ... finally
Forget about the third time, it was the 11th time that was the charm for Peter de Cruz of Switzerland.
De Cruz qualified for the playoffs for the first time in a Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event at the Princess Auto Elite 10. Although it was also the first time de Cruz competed in the Elite 10, his team had no problems handling the format. Fourth Benoit Schwarz had a breakout performance making doubles and triples left and right and being counted on in the draw-to-the-button shootout to score a pair of round-robin wins over Koe and Jacobs.
Schwarz came out on the wrong side of the shootout in the quarterfinals against Koe in the rematch though as his rock went through the house. Koe just had to hit the rings and almost passed the paint too, but stopped at the back of the 12-foot circle to hang on.
8th End: Up next -- WestJet Players’ Championship
Only two events remain on the 2016-17 Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling schedule and the next one up is the pinnacle of the series, the WestJet Players’ Championship, running April 11-16 at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto.
The WestJet Players’ Championship features the top 12 men’s teams and top 12 women’s teams of the season and has a storied history dating back to 1993. Invites should be in the mail, so expect an announcement of teams soon.
Click here to purchase your tickets online or call 1-844-389-4754.