Communication key to new Team Einarson’s fast start

Shannon Birchard, Val Sweeting, Kerri Einarson and Briane Meilleur discuss strategy during their practice session for the 2018 Masters Grand Slam of Curling in Truro, N.S. (Anil Mungal)

Boy, that escalated quickly.

Kerri Einarson and her all-new crew from Gimli, Man., have rocketed to the top of the World Curling Tour’s year-to-date women’s rankings winning four championships through six events to start the season.

Surprised? The rapid-fire rate Einarson & co. have collected hardware has even amazed themselves.

“I think we were pretty surprised by our success so early,” Einarson said during a recent phone interview. “We didn’t expect it this soon but it’s always good to get off to a great start and build that confidence.”

What makes Einarson’s situation unique is she brought in former skips Val Sweeting at third, Shannon Birchard at second and Briane Meilleur at lead. Having four skips could lead to a “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation, however, communication has been a key component to their quick start.

“I know right from lead to skip we’re all reading the ice. We’re all remembering shots because they used to skip, (it’s) just their tendency to do, which is good,” Einarson said. “I always ask Val if she thinks if it looks good and she always agrees it does, so we’re always all on the same page, which I think that’s what is really helping with our success.”

The genesis of the team began back in February when Einarson announced she was parting ways with third Selena Njegovan, second Liz Fyfe and lead Kristin MacCuish shortly after they finished runner-up to Jennifer Jones’ squad at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. (Coincidentally, Birchard filled in on Team Jones as third Kaitlyn Lawes was preparing to compete for Canada at the Pyeongchang Winter Games.)

Despite the silver-medal finish at the Canadian women’s championship plus success on the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tour, things just weren’t working out and it was time to move on with the Olympic cycle coming to a close.

“Shannon actually reached out to me first and told me that her team was changing and then Briane too,” Einarson said after forming her new team. “Briane and I have texted the last few years since I took her as my fifth at Scotties (in 2016), and we were close. She played baseball with me a few times. It was just going to be me, Shannon at third, Briane at second and then we were going to find a lead.”

Those plans changed when Sweeting suddenly found herself an unrestricted free agent as her Edmonton club opted to split up as well. Sweeting inquired with Einarson about possibly playing third but only if Birchard and Meilleur were OK with sliding down in the order.

“I sat down with them, we talked and they thought it was an amazing opportunity for them to get themselves out there and to get into the Slams as well,” Einarson said. “I think we’d be on the bubble for that or close or in. That was one of the goals for Shannon and Briane, to be into the Slams, so they thought it would be great.

“They would love to play different positions, embrace them and be the best lead and second that we need.”

It’s a complete overhaul with new challenges for everyone including Einarson, who has had to revamp her game plan to accentuate her new teammates’ strengths, especially with the southpaw Sweeting.

“They all throw a little bit different and having Val as a lefty, that’s something else I’ve had to adjust to as well,” Einarson said. “I’ve definitely had her help with that. I just told her if you don’t think I’m giving you enough (ice) or too much just to let me know because I want her to feel as comfortable as possible.”

Their debut at Winnipeg’s Goldline Icebreaker at the Granite at the end of August didn’t go as planned finishing with a 2-2 round-robin record and missing the playoffs. Einarson still saw some silver linings in their first outing together.

“When we played in our very first event, we took some positives out of it. We didn’t qualify but we were so close,” Einarson said. “It’s not like we played bad, we lost two close games, so we knew that we were on the right track. We knew we just had to work on a couple things communication-wise and we’ve put a lot of hard work into that.”

Their first title came at the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard in mid-September and was quickly followed with consecutive wins at the Morris SunSpiel, Mother Club Fall Curling Classic and Curlers Corner Autumn Gold Curling Classic. The streak came to an end this past weekend as they finished runner-up to Team Carey at the Canad Inns Women’s Classic. The front-loaded schedule was by design as they wanted to get in more games to get used to their new roles.

“The three of them are at all-new positions, so they wanted to get some more sweeping in,” Einarson said. “These girls have put in a lot of work off and on-ice for sweeping. It’s really amazing the work that they’ve put in. They’ve just done a really great job on getting to know their positions and playing them really well.”

The out-of-the-box explosion may suggest things have come easy but that wasn’t the case at the Autumn Gold Curling Classic. Einarson lost back-to-back games to Team Walker and Team Homan during preliminary play to fall into the C-side of the triple knockout stage. Another loss would have meant C-you-later but Team Einarson bounced back on the verge of elimination winning five consecutive games to capture the championship.

“That was a really big event for us. We played pretty much all Slam teams in that event,” said Einarson, who defeated Jones twice during the tournament including the final. “It was a good test for us and for when we lost those two games. In that A-side qualifier, we weren’t quite ourselves so we sat down afterward and we kind of figured out what were we doing wrong, what happened here. That was a really good lesson for us as well.

“We came back and played Homan. It was a really good game, we just didn’t have the hammer in the eighth end. We knew our backs were against the wall so we had to really grind through the C-side. It was a long two days because we played three games on Sunday and three games again on Monday. It was really tiring.”

Now comes the major test for the team at the Canadian Beef Masters, which starts Tuesday night at Rath Eastlink Community Centre in Truro, N.S., as they’ll stick with the game plan that has worked while continuing the process of building chemistry.

“We’re going to go out there, just enjoy it and focus on the process and work hard,” Einarson said. “Also, we’re still even getting to know each other. We’re just going to take one game at a time. Our goal will be we want to qualify. That was our first goal in Autumn Gold there and we achieved that then we just make goals as we go.”

It’s interesting to note it was at the 2014 edition of the Masters in Selkirk, Man., when Sweeting skipped her squad to its first Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title with an assist from super-spare Cathy Overton-Clapham. Einarson, who was born and raised in Selkirk, was just a fan in the stands at that tournament and reflected on how much has changed in the past four years to where she’s now entering the Canadian Beef Masters guiding the No. 1 ranked team on the year-to-date standings.

“Sitting behind her sheet, I had actually said to her if we would’ve been closer and known each other then, maybe I could have filled in or something. We were joking about that since I grew up in Selkirk,” Einarson said with a laugh. “It’s actually pretty crazy how far I’ve gotten in the last four years from sitting back there drinking doubles to playing in this elite level. It’s been a lot of hard work through these last four years but hard work pays off.”

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