Epping aims for elusive Ontario Tankard title

John Epping at the 2015 Meridian Canadian Open in Yorkton, Sask. (Anil Mungal)

John Epping’s team couldn’t have found a better time to click together.

The Toronto-based rink of Epping, third Mat Camm, second Patrick Janssen, and lead Tim March enter provincial playdowns on a 13-game winning streak having captured back-to-back titles on tour at the Meridian Canadian Open and U.S. Open of Curling events.

Still, with the Ontario Scotties fresh in mind — where Jenn Hanna upset No. 1 ranked Rachel Homan in last week’s stunning final — Epping isn’t going to be taking anyone lightly and expects a tough road ahead of him on his quest to claim his first career provincial championship at the Recharge with Milk Tankard.

“Ideally you want to peak for this time of the year and it’s the perfect time for us,” said Epping, a three-time Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling champion. “Going to the Brier is something I know I’ve personally dreamed about. I’ve been to many provincials and haven’t gotten there yet. It’s kind of been something that’s missing for me and I know the rest of the guys want to get to the Brier as well.

"It’s definitely something that we’re really gearing towards and working hard at and I think we’ve put ourselves in the best possible position we can. But at the end of the day there’s only going to be one winner and we’ve got a great field. Of course Glenn (Howard) is there so it’s going to be tough."

Team Epping's recent play has vaulted them to No. 5 on the World Curling Tour's money list and year-to-date order of merit rankings, making them the top Ontario team heading into Tankard. It's easy to forget they're still a relatively new team that needed to sort everything out before they really shined.

"I think it was just a matter of taking some time for the team to gel. We’re actually only a year and a half in. People had high expectations of us early on and didn’t realize it would take a little bit, and Mat’s only been with us probably five months now," Epping said. "It was going through some growing pains, getting to know each other, working through some things, trying some new things out and it takes time. We’re still in a transition. We’re still a newer team being only a year and a half in. I think it just took some time and we were due. We were due for some good solid play."

Although it's been a few weeks since their U.S. Open win, Epping doesn't feel like their momentum has cooled off as the break came at the right time following a grinding first-half of the season.

"It’s been the kind of question not playing for a month going into the Tankard, is that going to hurt? But for us it gave us the chance to get refresh and catch up on some sleep," he said. "We’ve played a ton of events so far. We’re definitely not lacking game so it was just nice to get home, get refresh, eat some homemade food. On the road it’s so hard to maintain diets. We feel so fresh and rejuvenated for next week."

The Tankard features some familiar names such as four-time world champion Glenn Howard, 2014 Ontario winner Greg Balsdon and 1998 Nagano Olympics silver medallist (and Sportsnet commentator) Mike Harris. Missing from the field is defending champion Mark Kean, whose team split up after the Brier and his new crew fell short of qualifying through zones and the last-chance challenge round.

Epping, who finished runner-up to Kean at last year's Tankard, said he feels more prepared for different things but still has the same mindset entering the event.

"All we can do is control how we play and try to get ourselves into a position to win in the end," he said. "You can win every game all week, go to the final and then have somewhat of an off-game and the other team plays fantastic and boom you’re not going to the Brier. That’s the way curling works, right? Look at Rachel Homan, that’s how it is.

"We’ve prepared the same as we have before, we’ll just put ourselves in that same position hopefully and just close the deal on Sunday."

The Recharge with Milk Tankard starts Monday and runs through to Sunday at the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre in Brantford, Ont. Tune to Rogers TV Sports+ for live coverage of all the round-robin draws and the first round of the playoffs with the semifinal and final on Sportsnet ONE.