Eight Ends: Homan, Epping take the lead on road to Olympic Trials

Peter Steski sits down with John Epping and Ryan Fry of Team Epping at the Masters, to discuss everything from how this new partnership started, to double booking weddings and flipping houses.

Eight Ends is your weekly source for news, notes, insight and analysis from around the curling world. This week looks at takeaways from the 2019 Canada Cup in Leduc, Alta.

1st End: Ottawa’s Rachel Homan and Toronto’s John Epping captured the Canada Cup but Sunday’s victories were about more than adding their names to the trophies and cashing in $40,000 (although that doesn’t hurt). Homan and Epping also became the first to earn berths for the 2021 Olympic Trials where Canada’s representatives for the Beijing Winter Games will be determined.

While two years may sound like a long time away, in the grand scheme of things it’s massive to have these spots locked up already. That now impacts how Homan and Epping plan out their next couple of seasons. They don’t have to overload their schedules trying to bank as many points as possible or burning out or burning money by signing up for every tournament every weekend. They can go at their own pace, play in only the tournaments they want to and let everyone else duke it out and wear themselves down trying to sneak into the Olympic Trials.

The victories also give them a confidence boost as we’ll likely see the same group of teams assemble in two years at the Olympic Trials and compete under an identical format.

2nd End: The first women’s team to clinch an Olympic Trials spot is also the team that won the event the last time two years ago.

This week was Team Homan in top form as we’ve seen then reach this height before even with some parallels to the 2017 Olympic Trials as well. They had some struggles early into the season missing playoffs at back-to-back Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events, lost their first game to Chelsea Carey and then never dropped another.

Homan capped things off defeating Tracy Fleury’s team from East St. Paul, Man., 9-4 in the final. The 10-time Grand Slam champion Homan barely missed shooting a team-leading 90 per cent against Fleury and finished first among all skips at 86 per cent during the week. Homan was just at another level as by comparison, Fleury ended in second place at 79 per cent.

3rd End: Epping is ranked No. 1 in the world but there were some questions about whether or not his squad was truly the top team on tour. Team Epping won two significant events early in September at the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard and AMJ Campbell Shorty Jenkins Classic but should that override multiple Grand Slam winners or the Brier champion?

Doubt no more as Team Epping proved they’re worthy of the World Curling Tour’s top status this week. Epping had an outstanding Canada Cup and avenged both of his round-robin losses in the playoffs downing Edmonton’s Brendan Bottcher 12-4 in Saturday’s semifinal and Calgary’s Kevin Koe 7-4 in the championship game.

This is the best team Epping has ever had with an arsenal featuring third Ryan Fry, second Mat Camm and lead Brent Laing. Fry, who joined his longtime pal Epping this season, won Olympic gold in 2014 with skip Brad Jacobs while Laing represented Canada at the most recent Winter Games in 2018 with Koe.

Fry’s arrival led to a roster shuffle that has brought out the best in both Laing and Camm, too. Laing, who was perfect in the final, is better suited at lead as he employs a fine touch game while Camm is flourishing at second now as he has the toolbox of runbacks and cross-house double takeouts to go toe-to-toe with the best at that position in the game (instead of listing them, just go ahead and insert the name of your favourite second here as I’m sure I’d forget someone).

Epping has also upped his game at skip and was ranked second at his position during the week shooting a sharp 82 per cent. Although we didn’t see him make any of his patented angle runbacks in the final, that’s because the team never fell into that kind of trouble to require desperation manoeuvres.

Oddly enough, Epping was only outranked at skip by Matt Dunstone, whose team finished last and winless at 0-6.

4th End: What made power ranking the teams entering the Canada Cup so difficult is the gap between all of the teams has never been closer. This might have been the most stacked Canada Cup ever.

The women’s playoffs even presented itself a rock-paper-scissors scenario: Homan could beat Fleury, Fleury could beat Carey and Carey could beat Homan. Fortunately for Homan, Fleury knocked off Carey’s Calgary crew 9-4 in the semifinal scoring three in the first and cruising away from there.

5th End: Even though Homan had Fleury’s number this week, the Manitoba club continued its stellar season qualifying for the playoffs in a ninth consecutive tournament. It’s been a long season already for Team Fleury, however, it’s that pace that put them in the position to secure the seventh and final Canada Cup spot in the first place.

If Fleury’s Masters victory in October wasn’t convincing enough that this team is for real, their run at the Canada Cup should have won you over.

6th End: Well, folks, when you’re right 52 per cent of the time, you’re wrong 48 per cent of the time. We believed Jacobs and Kerri Einarson’s club were the top teams entering the Canada Cup and would do well. Both finished round-robin play with 2-4 records and missed the playoffs.

We also thought this could be Bottcher’s time to shine. The Bottcher train was coming in hot from a high-profile tour win in Penticton, B.C., and defeated Epping on Friday night to wrap up round-robin play, but they ran off the rails in Saturday’s semifinal. Who could possibly predict a couple of bad draws from their skip leading to Epping scoring four and stealing four early into the semifinal? On top of that, who could have also predicted Team Bottcher third Darren Moulding would have a shoe malfunction?

7th End: Curling Canada CEO Katherine Henderson announced Sunday equal purses are coming for the Tim Hortons Brier and Scotties Tournament of Hearts. The Brier, Canada’s men’s curling championship, previously held a purse of $293,000 while the Tournament of Hearts, Canada’s women’s curling championship, lagged behind at $165,000. Both events will have identical total purses of $300,000 for 2020 with the winners each grabbing $100,500 of the pie.

Obviously a lot of work had to go down behind the scenes in order to make this happen since the events are held separately with different title sponsors but it’s a good look and the right direction for the sport.

8th End: Up next is the BOOST National taking place Dec. 10-15 at CBS Arena in Conception Bay South, N.L. The draw schedule has been set featuring local favourites Brad Gushue of St. John’s facing Scott McDonald of Kingston, Ont., in the opening draw. Click here to see all of the round-robin matches. Broadcast coverage begins Dec. 12 at 11 a.m. ET on Sportsnet.

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