CONCEPTION BAY SOUTH, N.L. — It might seem hard to believe but we’re already at the midway mark of the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling season with three events down and only three more to come once the calendar flips to 2020.
We now have enough of a sample size to evaluate some of the surprises and disappointments so far, which were reflected this past weekend in the Boost National at CBS Arena.
1st End: The best offence was a good defence for Brad Jacobs as his Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., squad grinded their way to the Boost National men’s championship. That was quite evident during the playoffs as Jacobs stole the extra end to edge Brendan Bottcher 4-3 in the quarterfinals, turfed Brad Gushue 5-3 in the semifinals and defeated Niklas Edin 3-1 for the title. Jacobs held the hammer just once during the final, in the seventh, but had already built a 2-0 lead off of steals in the fourth and fifth ends. Team Jacobs third Marc Kennedy said they had a bit of a game plan that involved playing defensively through the week.
“We got to throw a lot of runbacks and thankfully, E.J. (Harnden), Brad and myself made a bunch of them,” Kennedy said. “It was defensive but I think that’s kind of the way we like it.”
Kennedy returned to competition this season after taking a one-year hiatus and it’s safe to say he’s having fun with Team Jacobs. A lot of fun actually.
“Great guys, great curlers and great teammates,” Kennedy said. “We’re still just building and finding our chemistry, what works and what doesn’t. Looking forward to 2020.”
After winning the KIOTI Tractor Tour Challenge and Boost National consecutively, it’s crazy to think Team Jacobs, who just surpassed John Epping’s team for No. 1 on the WCF World Team Ranking, are still looking for ways to improve and could be in for a monster 2020.
2nd End: It was back-to-back GSOC titles for Anna Hasselborg as well. Hasselborg made it two in a row by defeating Jennifer Jones 7-3 in the Boost National women’s final. Sandwiched between Hasselborg’s Slam title wins was a successful defence at the European Championships on home ice in Sweden. Hasselborg admitted her team typically hasn’t done well in tournaments right after the Euros and it was something they focused on correcting this year.
“We had a very important chat before going here and setting up how we should tackle this after the Europeans,” Hasselborg said. “I’m so proud of the way that we’re doing this mentally and we’ve been better and better every game.”
Hasselborg credited coach Wayne Middaugh for helping them stay in the zone following their critical four-ender in the fourth that gave them a firm grasp of the final against Jones.
“The coach said, ‘What we do best: Stick to our routine, one end at a time, one rock at a time,’” Hasselborg said. “That’s what we did and just focus on the end goal. Not the goal for the game, the goal for the end. Just stick to our routines.”
Interesting to note Hasselborg’s four GSOC title wins have come since Middaugh came on board last season. Coincidence? Perhaps but you can’t deny Middaugh’s influence has had an impact on their performance.
3rd End: Kudos to Satsuki Fujisawa, Chinami Yoshida and Yumi Suzuki as the Japanese squad played as only a trio with lead Yurika Yoshida sick and not joining them for the Boost National. Team Fujisawa didn’t have enough time to find a sub nor picked up anyone locally as they felt more comfortable playing short-handed due to team dynamics/language barrier.
“At the start of the week knowing that we’d have three for the whole competition, it was definitely a little tough,” Team Fujisawa coach J.D. Lind said. “I felt bad for Yurika being sick. We knew that we still wanted to come here and perform well, so we just said, ‘We can’t look at it as a disadvantage, we can still play at a high level so we’ve just got to go out there and do it.’”
It’s amazing they won any games never mind the fact they won four and made it all the way to the semifinals. They’ve now qualified for the playoffs in all three Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events with a quarterfinal finish at the Masters and their first semifinal run at the KIOTI Tractor Tour Challenge. It’s not a matter of if but when they’ll reach the finals.
“It shows a lot about their character,” Jones said. “They’re a great team and made a ton of shots this week. They snuck out a win against us in our first game and played great. It’s great to see.”
4th End: Speaking of Jones, it never even crossed her mind to only play three with lead Dawn McEwen also sick and staying home. Jones called upon Edmonton’s Laura Walker to fill in.
“It’s just a privilege to be on the ice with Laura,” Jones said. “She’s just a true competitor and a great teammate.”
Walker has had an interesting 2019 in the GSOC skipping her former squad at the Meridian Canadian Open, filling in at second on Team Homan at the Players’ Championship, subbing at skip on Team Flaxey at the Humpty’s Champions Cup, skipping her new team in the KIOTI Tractor Tour Challenge Tier 2 and now playing the super spare role on Team Jones at the Boost National.
“I love it actually,” Walker said. “I really enjoy getting to play different positions. You kind of get a little bit into your own world down there as a skip and I get to get back out and sweep. I see a different side of the game, which I think is really important for me to get better as a skip as well.”
Walker will return to the series at next month’s Meridian Canadian Open skipping her current lineup featuring third Kate Cameron, second Taylor McDonald and lead Nadine Scotland.
5th End: Nobody is probably looking forward to the holiday break and some time away from the rink more than Tracy Fleury, who has competed in 10 tournaments already this season starting 2019-20 back in early August with an event in Japan. Then again, maybe not because Fleury’s East St. Paul, Man., team has qualified for the playoffs in all 10 of them and would like to keep that stellar consistency going. Fleury reached the Boost National semifinals and pushed it to the limit overcoming a late 9-6 deficit against Jones to score three in the eighth and force an extra end. Fleury’s Masters title win was one of the bigger surprises of the first half considering her teams in the past have always done well but never reached that top echelon. Now Fleury has and she’s for real.
6th End: Rachel Homan won three consecutive GSOC titles last season including her record 10th women’s championship. This season has been a complete opposite for her Ottawa team as they’ve missed the playoffs in three consecutive GSOC events for the first time ever.
Is something wrong with Team Homan? It’s obviously a big disappointment but it’s not like they’re playing poorly as they’ve also won the Canada Cup plus a tour event in Saskatoon. The ice was a tad tricky this week due to wild weather in Conception Bay South making it a challenge for the ice makers and that’s something Team Homan struggled with when the going got tough. Two of their losses were decided by one point while their last game came against Team Hasselborg, who weren’t missing much this week and were in control for the 6-2 victory. Team Homan will need to hit the reset button, put all of that behind them and come into 2020 fresh and recharged. If anyone can it’s Homan.
Falling into the unusual category of surprise and disappointment: Matt Dunstone’s team also needs a turnaround in the GSOC and fast. After going on an unbelievable run through the Masters, beating nothing but former GSOC champions en route to the title, they’ve now missed the playoffs in consecutive events in the series. Overall, the only other tournament this year they’ve qualified for the playoffs is the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard where they finished runners-up. It’s either finals or bust for the Regina squad and unfortunately for them, it’s been bust more often than not.
7th End: Local favourite Gushue fared one round better this year but still went home (all the way down the road) empty-handed falling to Jacobs in the semifinals. Gushue, who has won 11 titles in the series, had finished runner-up at the past two GSOC events this season and was hoping the third time would be the charm in his backyard. It wasn’t for not trying as Gushue and his crew from St. John’s shot 90 per cent in the game, however, that just wasn’t good enough as Team Jacobs barely missed a shot firing 99 per cent as a unit with perfect scores for Kennedy and Harnden. The turning point came early in the game with Jacobs forcing Gushue to a single to start, converting with the hammer in the second to score three points and never looked back.
“That’s arguably the best team in the world,” Kennedy said. “Their rock placement is unreal. They’re just like robots. Any time you have a chance to beat those guys, you’ve obviously played pretty well and we did. We played great, turned the hammer in the second end and held on to it from there. A great battle, lots of great shots and pretty proud of my teammates after a long day.”
8th End: Chelsea Carey and Robyn Silvernagle had been trending in the wrong direction this season missing the playoffs in the first couple of GSOC events. Both reversed course at the Boost National with Carey qualifying with a 3-1 round-robin record and Silvernagle sneaking through the tiebreakers with a decisive 9-3 win over reigning world champion Silvana Tirinzoni. In Carey’s case, her Calgary-based team was coming off of a third-place finish at the Canada Cup and that lifted the confidence of the 2019 Scotties Tournament of Hearts champions to get them back on right track.
“That was a big turnaround that we needed,” Carey said. “I got to work with my dad there a bit and he fixed a couple of things. I was struggling with my release in a couple of places and stuff and he helped with that. Just build some confidence. We needed to feel some confidence. We’re feeling much better coming into this Slam and have been able to carry that through.”
Extra End: The GSOC is now on holidays resuming in the New Year with the 2020 Meridian Canadian Open, Jan. 14-19, at the Gallagher Centre in Yorkton, Sask. The series announced the 16 men’s teams and 16 women’s teams competing in the event Tuesday, check out the list by clicking here.