Eight Ends: Parity adding intrigue to women’s division

Watch as Team Hasselborg is wide with their final rock making Team Sweeting a back-to-back Tour Challenge champion.

Two non-Canadian teams top the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit rankings for the first time ever.

Sweden’s Team Edin has been first on the men’s side since the season began, but history was made last week when compatriots Team Hasselborg leapfrogged Team Homan for the top spot in the women’s division.

The Hasselborg squad has been charging along on tour having played four events already and finished within the final four each time. While they have yet to win a title thus far, those runner-up results at the Tour Challenge Tier 1 and HDF Insurance Shoot-Out add up fast in the points.

Hasselborg has the benefit of already being selected to represent Sweden at the Winter Olympics, so it’s business as usual on tour for the team. Canadian squads don’t have that luxury with the Olympic Trials set for December — for some, there’s an extra road through November’s pre-trials — and are taking it slow and steady until then. It’s not just peaking at the right time but also reducing the risk of injury or fatigue. When the Olympic Trials is what you build everything around, the cautious approach is the logical way to go.

No. 1 on the Order of Merit doesn’t warrant a championship trophy or a title belt to carrying around to every event (much to this reporter’s disappointment). What is interesting is if we scroll down the women’s standings and look at those teams who can’t afford to slip up. Roughly 26 points separate 12th from 19th, which pretty much means one bad weekend on tour could cost you a spot in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling.

Team Einarson was one of those teams that fell out, despite winning a Grand Slam last season, but their Tour Challenge Tier 2 victory secured them a spot for the next Pinty’s GSOC event, the Masters. They’re not the only ones moving on up from Tier 2 though.

Team Sinclair, who opened the season in 19th, made the semifinals at the Tour Challenge Tier 2 and won the Shorty Jenkins Classic the following weekend to vault up to 12th on the OOM just in time for the Masters qualification date to receive an invite. See you at the Masters, Team Sinclair!

While Einarson and Sinclair are in, that means other teams are out. Team Wang (No. 16) and Team Fleury (No. 17) will have to sit this next one out (pending teams declining their invites) but even Team Tippin, who went 2-2 and lost in a tiebreaker at the Tour Challenge Tier 1, fell to No. 22. No one in the double digits is safe in the standings as you also have Team Carey (No. 18) and Team Rocque (No. 19) hovering in that “outside looking in” group.

While we await completion of the Masters field, the qualification date for the Boost National is also approaching in two weeks time and we could see more teams flip-flopping in the standings before then. In fact, all of the above rankings mentioned could be different by the time you read this once this past weekend’s points are added into the totals.

Parity was high in the women’s division last season when we saw different winners at all six Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling women’s tournaments and it’s likely we could see the same variety of champions this year too with so many solid teams fighting just to get in the door.

1st End: Upset alert

Shannon Birchard stunned Olympic gold medallist Jennifer Jones 8-6 in Sunday’s all-Winnipeg final at the Colonial Square Ladies Classic in Saskatoon.

Birchard trailed by one at the break and unloaded with a four-ender in the fifth to take a 7-4 lead. Jones settled for a single in six and stole in seven to close the gap to one, but she couldn’t complete the comeback as Birchard put another point on the board with the hammer coming home in eight.

The team of Birchard, third Nicole Sigvaldason, second Sheyna Andries and lead Mariah Mondor went undefeated through the tournament posting a perfect 6-0 record including another 4-2 win over Team Jones earlier during the A qualifier of the triple knockout preliminary round.

This is the first big women’s tour win for the 23-year-old Birchard, who is a two-time Canadian junior finalist and has reached the Manitoba Scotties playoffs the past two seasons. Birchard was also a late addition to the Olympic pre-trials and this victory should give her team a boost heading into that event Nov. 6-12 in Summerside, P.E.I., where two men’s teams and two women’s teams advance to the Olympic Trials.

2nd End: Gunnlaugson takes two

Jason Gunnlaugson was back in the winner’s circle Sunday at the Mother Club Fall Curling Classic in Winnipeg.

Gunnlaugson defeated his previous team, now skipped by Pat Simmons, 5-3 in the men’s final and finished 7-0 in the tournament.

After Simmons stole a single to start, Gunnlaugson took the lead with a three-ender in the third. Simmons scored two in the fifth to tie it, Gunnlaugson counted a single in six to wrestle the lead back and stole in the eighth to seal the victory.

It’s the second straight title for the team of Gunnlaugson, third Alex Forrest, second Ian McMillan and lead Connor Njegovan following their Tour Challenge Tier 2 victory earlier this month.

The two-time Brier champ Simmons, from Moose Jaw, Sask., joined the Winnipeg-based trio of Colton Lott, Kyle Doering and Robbie Gordon this season and entered the final on a six-game winning streak.

Both teams hold Olympic pre-trials spots and with Gunnlaugson picking up his second title of the season already, he’s certainly gelling quite nicely with his new crew in a key season.

3rd End: Englot edges Einarson

It was also a battle between two Winnipeg-based teams, with one skipped by a Saskatchewan import, on the women’s side of the Mother Club Fall Curling Classic.

Regina’s Michelle Englot, the reigning Manitoba Scotties champion, grinded out a 6-5 victory over Einarson to successfuly defend the title.

Third Kate Cameron, second Leslie Wilson and lead Raunora Westcott also won the event in 2014 with their former skip, Kristy McDonald.

The game swung back and forth with Englot stealing in the second and Einarson matching with a single in the third. Einarson stole two in the fourth to lead 3-1 at the break and Englot knotted it back up settling for one in the fifth and stealing a point in six. The Tier 2 winner Einarson counted a couple in seven to regain the lead, but Englot finished it off by lifting her team to victory in eight with a three count.

Both teams finished with 6-1 records. Englot’s lone loss came in her final round-robin game to Darcy Robertson, but she avenged the defeat with a win in the rematch during the semifinals.

4th End: Tippin takes KW Fall Classic

We mentioned Team Tippin earlier in regards to dropping in the WCT rankings, but a victory at the KW Fall Classic should get the Woodstock, Ont., team back on track.

Julie Tippin went undefeated at 7-0 through the Waterloo, Ont., tournament and capped things off with a commanding 7-2 victory over Susan Froud in Sunday’s final.

Meanwhile, local favourite Matthew Hall beat Rob Retchless 5-4 to claim the men’s title. Hall opened with a 1-2 record, including a loss to Retchless, to fall to the C bracket of the triple knockout and won out from there rolling off five consecutive victories.

5th End: Elsewhere on tour

Jenn Baxter and Mark Dacey of Dartmouth, N.S., defeated Edmonton’s Heather and David Nedohin 8-3 to win the Service Experts Mixed Doubles Classic Sunday in Edmonton.

Julie McEnvoy beat Theresa Breen 5-4 in Sunday’s all-Halifax team women’s final to earn the Lakeshore Curling Club Cashspiel title in Lower Sackville, N.S. Halifax’s Kendal Thompson took down Stuart Thompson of Dartmouth 6-4 in the men’s final.

Tyler Tardi of Langley and Sarah Daniels of Delta were victorious at the Anita Cochrane Memorial junior event in New Westminster, B.C. Tardi topped Matthew McCrady of New Westminster 4-3 on the junior men’s side while Daniels beat Megan McGillivray of Vernon 9-4 for the junior women’s title Sunday.

6th End: Coming up this week

It’s now the men’s teams turn at the Nutana Curling Club in Saskatoon for the College Clean Restoration Curling Classic going on this weekend.

Both men’s and women’s teams will compete in Vernon, B.C., for the Prestige Hotels & Resorts Curling Classic and also at Edmonton’s Avonair Cash Spiel.

Two big events are on tap overseas with the women’s teams heading to Sweden for the Stockholm Ladies Cup and the men’s teams off to Switzerland for the Swiss Cup Basel. Both events typically attract the top teams on tour and should be highly competitive once again.

7th End: Early wins, late rewards

It’s never too early to start thinking about the season-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup running April 24-29 at Calgary’s WinSport Arena. Teams have to win a high-profile event in order to receive an invite. It’s a mad dash throughout the season to qualify as you don’t want to be scrambling to win something late into the season. Click here for the breakdown of eligible events.

Right now only four teams have their spots locked up with the defending champs Team Jacobs and Team Homan plus Tour Challenge Tier 1 winners Team Gushue and Team Sweeting.

While there are fewer spots available this year for World Curling Tour winners since the Olympic gold medallists are now guaranteed spots, considering in years past some teams have captured multiple titles (and a couple teams declined) there will be plenty of places up for grabs.

The Colonial Square Ladies Classic is one such event where 2015 winner Team McCarville and 2016 victor Team Wang earned their Humpty’s Champions Cup invitations those seasons. This year’s event also carried a high strength of field multiplier (6.3459), so it is possible Team Birchard could have their Humpty’s Champions Cup spot secured. Fair warning, we’re not saying it’s guaranteed, just that’s it is possible.

8th End: Masters announcement coming soon

There’s less than a month to go until the next Pinty’s Grand Slam of the Curling event, the Masters, taking place Oct. 24-29 at Centennial Civic Centre in Lloydminster, Sask.

This reporter can confirm the men’s lineup is set and we’re just waiting on a couple women’s teams to send in their R.S.V.P. to complete the field. Keep it here for an announcement of teams later this week hopefully, but until then we’ll have to play the waiting game (obligatory Simpsons reference: The waiting game sucks, let’s play Hungry, Hungry, Hippos).

Single draw tickets are now available for the Masters, along with all-event and weekend passes. Purchase your tickets online at Lloydgsoc.goigniter.com or call 306-825-5161.

Can’t make it to Lloydminster? Television coverage begins Oct. 26 at 2:30 p.m. ET on Sportsnet (click here for the full TV schedule). Also watch online by subscribing to Sportsnet NOW (Canada) or gsoc.yaretv.com (international).

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