Eight Ends: Consistency carries Einarson to second straight Scotties title

Team Canada, left to right, lead Briane Meilleur, second Shannon Birchard, third Val Sweeting and skip Kerri Einarson celebrates pose with the trophy after defeating Team Ontario in the final at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021.(Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Kept you waiting, huh? Eight Ends is your source for news, notes, insight and analysis from around the curling world. We’re back this week after a hiatus with all hot takes and no freezing cold ones from the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.

FIRST END: It was the toughest Scotties Tournament of Hearts ever, with an expanded 18-team field, bubble conditions and being practically the first event of the season for most teams with little-to-no ice-time leading up to the prestigious Canadian women’s curling championship. Kerri Einarson’s team cleared all that and then some, all with the weight of the Maple Leaf on their backs at Markin MacPhail Centre in WinSport’s Canada Olympic Park in Calgary.

The Gimli, Man., based club of Einarson, third Val Sweeting, second Shannon Birchard and lead Briane Meilleur defeated Team Ontario, skipped by Rachel Homan, 9-7 during Sunday’s final in a repeat of last year’s championship game.

"It means the absolute world to be able to repeat," Einarson said. "It's something that is very hard to do and hasn’t been done since 2014. To do it again and playing against all of these amazing teams, we had to fight really hard. I’m just so proud and honoured to be able to wear the Maple Leaf again."

Team Einarson also became the first since Homan in 2014 to successfully defend the Scotties title.

“I think there was a little bit of that added pressure, just wanting to repeat and not having had the opportunity to represent Canada last year,” added Birchard, who has won three Scotties titles in three appearances. “Having the Maple Leaf on our backs was such an honour and we definitely felt the weight of it through the week but we had so much fun out there and this was such an awesome event.”

Team Canada skip Kerri Einarson makes a shot against Team Alberta during the semi-final draw at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021.(Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Consistency up and down the lineup was key throughout the week with Einarson, Sweeting and Birchard shooting to the top at their respective positions and earning first team all-star selection. Einarson finished with an overall 12-2 record including 9-1 when starting with the last-rock advantage as they were able to dictate the pace and control their games. They averaged 8.36 points per game to lead all teams and gave up the fewest points per game as well at 4.86.

Team Einarson outshot Team Homan in the percentages 86-79 during the final with Meilleur figuratively and literally leading the way. Meilleur saved her best for last shooting an outstanding 95 per cent to help her team start strong each and every end.

“I just tried to do what I can for the girls so that they have easier shots,” Meilleur said. “That’s my main job. I’m glad I did that for them, so they could make theirs easier.”

A critical three-ender in the fifth end gave Canada a 5-3 lead heading into the break and a deuce in seven gave them a 7-4 advantage. Ontario battled back though, as Team Homan does, settling for a single in eight and stealing an equalizing deuce in nine when Einarson opted for a tricky double raise attempt to try and score one but her shooter had other plans and crashed on a guard instead to set up the dramatic finale.

Einarson gave up a steal of two in the 10th and won in an extra to beat Homan last year and was able to laugh about the coincidence afterward.

“When we gave up two, I was like, ‘Oh boy. Here we go again,’” Einarson said. “I wasn’t worried. The girls in front of me were playing so well. I knew they would make their shots and I knew I would make mine. It was deja vu.”

Team Einarson still had the all-important hammer in the 10th end and didn’t need to throw a heroic final shot as they were already sitting two when Homan slid too deep on her last rock.

For a team of former skips that was formed three years ago, they’ve certainly silenced the haters who had their doubts they could adapt and adjust to their roles.

“We just really own our positions and buy into where we're playing," Meilleur said. "We all know we're playing where we have to to be the best and to make our team the most successful. We’re all very passionate about the positions we play and we want to be the best at them, work at them and try to improve all of the time. I think that’s what made us successful is that we all bought in and we were OK with where we were at. No one was trying to be higher up on the totem pole than someone else. We were all totally in and that’s what you need to be a successful team.”

Team Ontario skip Rachel Homan, left, directs her team as Team Canada skip Kerri Einarson looks on in the final at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

SECOND END: Rachel Homan is the Tom Brady of curling (or Brady is the Homan of football) after playing in her sixth Scotties final through her past seven appearances. To reach two of those finals while also pregnant is simply unbelievable. I’m not going to man-splain the physical toll the three-time Scotties champion Homan had to be going through this week, nor could I do it justice. At eight months pregnant, Homan never missed an end, never mind a game, even with skip Danielle Inglis on the bench as an alternate just in case. Inglis did get into one game for a bit but threw lead stones.

Birchard had high praise for Homan after the final saying she was in “absolute awe of her.”

“I don’t think any one of us could have imagined that we’d be able to achieve what she just did out there this week,” Birchard said. “I don’t know how she does it but we knew she was going to compete as hard as she could against us and that’s just who she is. She was absolutely phenomenal this week.”

Homan finished tied for first with Einarson amongst all skips shooting 83 per cent through round-robin play and earned a spot as a second team all-star. Joining her was lead Joanne Courtney, who was playing her first full event at her new position and also threw at an 83 per cent clip.

“I pushed as hard as I could and we went as far as we were able to go as a team,” Homan said. “It was a phenomenal team effort to make this happen this week. ... You talked about three losses, I’ve been pregnant for two of them, so it’s just been phenomenal that my team’s been able to back me and still be able to play at the top of our game and trying to be as fit as we can out there as a unit.

"It’s just a battle of two great teams and hopefully it was great for fans to watch and hopefully inspiration for more women to come.”

Team Ontario skip Rachel Homan directs her team against Team Canada in the final at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021.(Jeff McIntosh/CP)

THIRD END: Laura Walker’s Team Alberta took a giant leap forward to score a spot on the (virtual) podium with a bronze-medal finish. Walker won three straight games a year ago before losing four in a row to miss the championship pool and it was looking like the same story again until her Edmonton-based team got back on track to win seven of eight games and qualify for the playoffs. That includes scoring three in the 10th to edge Manitoba 9-8 in a tiebreaker Sunday morning before quickly turning around to play Canada in the semifinal, which Einarson won 9-3.

Walker, who also had her six-month-old baby Liam with her in the bubble, discussed Saturday how important it was having mental performance coach Shannon Pynn with her team this week.

“We’ve been gritty and we’ve been grindy in a lot of our wins and that’s a huge testament to Shannon,” Walker said. “She’s really kept us in check, controlling what we can control and reminding us that we’re still learning. We’re only 10 or whatever games into this thing. That’s not a lot of games to have an entire season. That’s the reality. We’ve played 10, 11 games all year, so she’s done a really good job of reminding us what’s important and I don’t think we would be in this position where we can win our last game and get ourselves into the mix without her here.”

FOURTH END: Manitoba had the toughest final day of the championship pool needing to beat the top two teams, Ontario and Canada, in order to force a tiebreaker Sunday morning against Alberta. Jones and co. stepped up their game by downing Homan 9-1 and upending Einarson 10-9 in an extra.

Manitoba did not have longtime lead Dawn McEwen, who is expecting her second child, but new alternate Lisa Weagle didn’t miss a beat. Mind you, Weagle is one of the best leads in the game so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when she scored the first team all-star nod at her position shooting 90 per cent. Weagle fired at a 94 per cent clip against her former Ontario teammates, however, she brushed aside the drama and was more concerned with who she was playing for and not who she was playing against.

“Today I was just out there playing for me and I was playing for my team,” Weagle said. “I just wanted to find a new level of excellence and play really well. … It wasn’t really my focus today that we were playing them. I was definitely excited for the game but I was focused more on myself.”

FIFTH END: Weagle said it was like curling in a library. Walker drew to the pinhole and you could’ve heard a pin drop. Saskatchewan skip Sherry Anderson even heard a toilet flush.

We knew curling in the bubble would be different, however, the lack of fans added some interesting tidbits along the way.

"It definitely felt extremely weird," Einarson said after the final. "Not being able to run and hug my girls, my parents, family and friends, it’s tough. I was glad to be able to see them up in a picture on the screen. It’s hard not being able to have them here but knowing that they are cheering for us and supporting us and all of the messages that we have gotten has been amazing and very overwhelming."

The Scotties itself ran smoothly with only one game on the second day postponed when a player on Kerry Galusha’s Northwest Territories team fell ill. It was a false alarm, though, and determined to be food poisoning and not COVID-related. Even then, pushing the NWT-Canada game to Monday morning and being the only game on the ice proved to be good preparation for Team Einarson heading into the final day.

“We were lucky we actually got the chance to play without anyone there one draw with the Galusha team,” Meilleur said. “We already knew it was going to be very quiet but we were used to it already and were just each other’s cheerleaders and best friends out there.”

Kudos to Curling Canada for running an event as everyone who spoke had positive comments and zero negative cases.

"We were very impressed," Sweeting said. "I think that there were a lot of moving parts for everyone, so the organization was really well done. I know there were a lot of unknowns and procedures but for the organizers to have it all under control and then the athletes to also follow, I think it went really smoothly. It just felt really good to be out there doing what we love. Even though there were no fans it was still special for us."

SIXTH END: Stock in Laurie St-Georges’ Team Quebec rocketed to the moon. The “Curling Rock Stars” were the upset pick of the week, reaching the final eight championship pool stage in their Scotties debut.

The 23-year-old skip from Laval, Que., in particular, won over curling fans online with her positive persona and resemblance to Elsa from Frozen (St-Georges played it up by braiding her hair in a similar fashion) plus her fearlessness to let it go and deliver jaw-dropping hits. St-Georges earned the Marj Mitchell Sportsmanship Award and her team gained respect from their peers. Saskatchewan third Nancy Martin was stunned and shook her head in disbelief after her team escaped with a 9-6 win Tuesday over Quebec.

Team Quebec skip Laurie St-Georges gestures to a teammates after making a shot against Team Saskatchewan at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.(Jeff McIntosh/CP)

“They were shooting lights out,” Martin said. “They had our number there for a while.”

Einarson also gave props to the team after her club managed to fend them off 7-4 Saturday. St-Georges came out firing in the first end with a cross-house triple to sit shot rock buried and forced Einarson to a single point to start.

“They’re great shooters,” Einarson said. “Wow. First end she made a triple, so what can you say? I left it for her twice, so I knew she’d make it the second time. They’re a great young team. They have a very bright future.”

SEVENTH END: Mackenzie Zacharias and Team Wild Card Two capped their rookie run at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts on a high note. Zacharias, from Altona, Man., fired a highlight-reel double to score four points in the ninth end to finish off Northern Ontario 9-4 Thursday.

Although Team Wild Card Two missed the cut with a 3-5 record, Zacharias said her team will take away a lot from their Scotties debut. The 21-year-old skip is joined by her 19-year-old sister Emily Zacharias at second, 22-year-old Karlee Burgess at third and Lauren Lenentine, 20, at lead. Do you feel old now? The reigning Canadian and world junior champions lived up to their "wild card" name by giving several contenders scares over the week.

Wild Card Three escaped with a narrow 5-4 victory over Zacharias and from one former Canadian junior champion to another, lead Brittany Tran said they have so much potential and looked pretty solid.

“I wish I would have had that opportunity when I won juniors,” Tran said. “I think that would have been amazing just to be able to get that experience so young. Experience is so tough to get, being able to have that opportunity to play more on arena ice, against these teams and bringing up your level of play, I think that’s just amazing for them.”

Zacharias’ dream was playing in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. Now the dream is to return next year.

“Oh yeah, we want to come back for more,” Zacharias said with a smile. “I think we didn’t exactly do everything we wanted to accomplish here this week, so we’re going to be hungry for more next year. We’re going to give it our all to actually get back here.”

EIGHTH END: What’s next for double Canadian champions Team Einarson? They have still yet to represent Canada on the world stage after last season’s championship was cancelled on the eve of the event. At least this year’s was called off before they arrived as it was originally on tap to take place in Switzerland later this month until local health authorities did not allow plans to proceed.

There are some rumblings the World Curling Federation could schedule a makeup event of some sorts in the fall or maybe even tack it onto the end of the bubble games in the spring but we’ll just have to wait and see. For now, it's time for the Canadian men's curling championship with the Tim Hortons Brier starting Friday night.

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