Eight Ends: World champ Tirinzoni starts season with clean slate

Silvana Tirinzoni shoots a stone during the 2018 Princess Auto Elite 10 in Chatham-Kent, Ont. (Anil Mungal)

OAKVILLE, Ont. — It has begun! No, not Mortal Kombat but the 2019-20 curling season.

Technically we’re already up to Week 7 of the World Curling Tour schedule thanks to a handful of early events overseas but now is the time when business really starts to pick up as more and more top teams are getting out of the gate and onto the grid.

Here in the season debut of Eight Ends, your source for news and notes from across the tour, we caught up with a few teams this weekend during the Cameron’s Brewing Oakville Fall Classic.

1st End: It may not look like a new Team Eve Muirhead but the Scottish squad shuffled the deck after second Vicki Chalmers hung up her Goldline brush. Lauren Gray moved up from lead to third, Jennifer Dodds slid over to second, and alternate Vicky Wright is now in at lead. (So don’t worry, you’ll still hear Muirhead yelling, “Go Vicky! Hard Vicky!”)

With the soft reset, it would have been understandable if they had a slow start, however, they managed to figure things out fast winning the Oakville Fall Classic women’s title.

“It’s the same group of people but a different combination so it really is kind of a new team,” said Muirhead, who defeated Silvana Tirinzoni 5-2 in Monday’s final. “For us I think we have figured out where we’re most comfortable in positions and we played well.”

Team Muirhead couldn’t afford a slow start either as they began the season 17th in the World Curling Tour Order of Merit and were on the outside-looking-in for the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling. The victory vaulted them up to 11th giving them some breathing room (but not too much) with qualification for the first GSOC event, the Masters, coming up in a couple of weeks.

“Our plan was to try and come out pretty strong at the start of the season,” Muirhead said. “For us, we have to try and get a few points and guarantee our Grand Slam spots because we were slowly going down that ranking.”

2nd End: Tirinzoni claimed her first world championship last season and capped the year by winning the Humpty’s Champions Cup. The Swiss skip isn’t resting on her laurels knowing past accomplishments don’t necessarily dictate future success.

“It’s just nice to have those titles but they don’t mean anything for this season in regards of having the same success,” Tirinzoni said. “We still have to work really hard to be just as successful as last year. It’s going to be hard to copy last season, for sure, but we’re going to try very hard. It doesn’t make me more nervous to be the world champion, it’s more motivation than pressure.”

Tirinzoni expects new obstacles for them to overcome in Year Two of the Olympic cycle with other teams ramping things up.

“We were a new team last year and I expect this year to be a little harder,” she said. “The first year is always a bit easy but then the second year it’s just a little harder. I expect some challenges but I look forward to going through them with that team. I’m just looking forward to every event that’s coming.”

3rd End: Ontario’s Scott McDonald and Saskatchewan’s Kirk Muyres had breakout seasons in 2018-19 rising up the ranks into the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling — with Muyres defeating McDonald in the Tour Challenge Tier 2 final no less — and also winning their respective provincial playdowns to enter the Brier.

The two continue to be linked as they kicked off their seasons early competing in the Hokkaido Bank Curling Classic in Japan at the start of August.

“There wasn’t obviously any other curling going on and we thought it would be a great opportunity to see the world,” Muyres said. “Japan is absolutely wonderful, it’s beautiful, the people are amazing, it’s one of the nicest places I’ve ever been to. It was cool to go over there, cool to play some curling and get our feet wet in this season again and obviously play against Gunner [Jason Gunnlaugson], McDonald and those guys you play everywhere. It was really neat, an awesome experience and I really recommend Japan for everyone.”

Curling was practically secondary for McDonald too as his team enjoyed the life experience.

“None of us had been over to Japan before, so we got to do a bit of sight-seeing, which was great to see the country and see the culture over there,” McDonald said. “It’s much different than here but the people are so nice there, we felt welcomed from the first day, so it was really good.”

Both are eager to build on their standout seasons knowing they still have a few more steps to climb while also fending off the next batch of teams following in their wake.

“We built a lot of momentum last year and did a lot of things right, so what we want to figure out right now is what our gaps are and what we can do to be a little bit better,” McDonald said. “There are a lot of teams out there that are doing what they need to do to get to that next level and we want to remain at that level. With everyone working so hard you have to do the same thing otherwise you’re going to fall behind. Playing a lot for us is really big to get some points this year and hopefully, we can stay in those Grand Slam events and continue to knock on the door.”

Confidence is also a key factor for Muyres when he reflects on his first season skipping and what he was able to accomplish.

“We had some moments of brilliance last year and we had some moments that weren’t so brilliant,” Muyres said. “I think when you look back and you remember those moments of brilliance you realize that you can do it and you can be one of the better teams in curling, but how can we do that more often? Going back and remembering those really good times, knowing we can do that and trying to implement those times more often this year and that’s really the goal.”

4th End: Jamie Sinclair looks to have a lock on her lineup this time after quite the turnover during the past couple seasons. The American skip added twins Sarah and Taylor Anderson last year and brought in Vicky Persinger and Cory Christensen for 2019-20.

“It seems like I’ve got new players every year but I’m excited about this lineup,” Sinclair said. “I think this is the lineup we’re going to stick with until the next trials. I’m feeling really good about it. It’s a learning curve because of a lot of new positions for everybody, so we’re definitely going through growing pains but overall feeling really excited about this team.”

It’ll be another rebuilding year for Team Sinclair, who slipped to No. 38 on the World Curling Tour, although it is a case of something old, something new for the skip. Sinclair had her most successful season when Persinger was part of her team in 2018 as they captured their first Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title, and the first for an American-based team, at the Players’ Championship.

“I’m really excited to have Vicky back. I missed her last year, that’s for sure.” Sinclair said. “It’s nice to get back to playing with a good friend and a good player and it feels good.”

Sinclair also has a new coach with five-time Canadian champion Cathy Overton-Clapham coming on board.

“Cathy’s been great so far,” Sinclair said. “She brings such a wealth of knowledge. She has so much experience to share. She’s teaching us a lot and she brings a ton of energy as well. She’s really competitive so we feed off of that and it really gets us fired up before games.”

5th End: Kelsey Rocque’s team is hitting the road early and often to start the season with back-to-back events in Oakville before returning to Edmonton for the Booster Juice Shoot-Out at their home club.

“Our whole team is dedicated to playing a lot more, practising more and going a little harder,” said Rocque, who reached the semifinals at the Oakville Fall Classic. “To start curling in August is a little weird for us but we’re excited to get going.”

Rocque’s runner-up result at provincial playdowns last season has motivated her team to aim high this year and compete in more events.

“I think that put a little bit of a fire under us just to know that we are really close and it just takes more diligence on our end,” Rocque said.

There will be no incumbent at provincials this season as Chelsea Carey also captured the Scotties Tournament of Hearts to earn an auto-berth back to nationals. Although that’s one major hurdle out of the way, it’s not going to be any easier with several other top teams — like those skipped by Casey Scheidegger and Laura Walker — looking to capitalize, too.

“Alberta is a tough province, there are so many good teams and really it’s just whoever prepares the best and whoever comes out hot that week is going to be a great representative for Alberta,” Rocque said. “That’s obviously the focus of our season but right now we’re just building towards it.”

6th End: Ontario’s Team Megan Balsdon and Manitoba’s Team Theresa Cannon are two pseudo-new teams this season.

With skip Julie Tippin moving on, Balsdon went from third to calling the shots and retained second Rachelle Strybosch and lead Tess Bobbie from their Ontario Scotties runner-up roster. Former Team Allison Flaxey and Team Jacqueline Harrison second Lynn Kreviazuk joined at third.

“I like it, it’s a ton of fun,” Kreviazuk said. “It’s the only position I hadn’t played competitively. It’s a fun combination of everything and I’m really enjoying it so far.”

Cannon also switched positions from lead to skip — taking over for Darcy Robertson — and keeping third Karen Klein and second Vanessa Foster. Raunora Westcott, who has played with skips Michelle Englot and Flaxey, joined at lead and has felt welcomed by the trio.

“The girls are all really supportive of each other,” Westcott said. “I absolutely love playing with teammates that are within the province. I find that’s the best part is being able to go out and practise with all four of us plus our coach. It’s been really good.”

Kreviazuk and Westcott might be the newbies but they’re the ones bringing valuable experience to their respective lineups. Kreviazuk won the 2014 Ontario Scotties and 2016 Masters titles with Flaxey while Westcott captured the Manitoba Scotties and finished runner-up at nationals in 2017 with Englot.

“It’s really just having conversations with them about what worked well for them, of course having made it all the way to the provincial final last year,” Kreviazuk said. “So it’s really just trying to fit in with what worked for them, originally.”

Westcott added: “Even though we’ve always played in the same sandbox our whole lives, I feel like they really respect what I have to say and vice versa. It’s been a really good relationship so far.”

Both Team Balsdon and Team Cannon reached the quarterfinals in Oakville.

7th End: Tanner Horgan’s new Manitoba-based squad with third Colton Lott, second Kyle Doering and lead Tanner Lott is a case of Six Degrees of Separation. The Lott brothers played together last year while Colton and Doering spent several seasons together in the past. The pair won the 2016 Canadian junior championship for Manitoba defeating — guess who — Horgan’s Northern Ontario team in the final (and their coach was Kevin Bacon. Just kidding).

“Everybody gets along great,” Doering said. “Off the ice, it’s fantastic. That’s half the battle of a curling team. On the ice now, we’ve just got to dial it in now and get into that mid-season form.”

Doering said prior to the start of their run in Oakville there’s still a bit of a learning curve as they translate that off-ice chemistry onto the ice.

“I’ve curled with a few different people now but it’s always hard when you get a new skip to get acclimatized to what he’s calling and stuff,” he said. “For Colton and myself, it’s easy. I’ve curled with him for seven years now. It’s going OK. Tanner and Colton played together last year so they know each other really well. There is some familiarity with the team but there are also some things to learn.

“We’re gelling pretty well and I think this event we’ll see what we can do out there. I think we’ll be pretty good, I hope.”

Pretty good is how Team Horgan performed as they went 4-0 through round-robin play and were the lone Canadian men’s club to qualify for the playoffs. Their run ended in the quarterfinals losing 7-2 to eventual champions Team Yannick Schwaller.

8th End: Fittingly ending this week’s blog with the great debate between eight and 10 ends. The World Curling Federation is meeting later this week in Cancun, Mexico, with one of the hot topic items on the agenda examining whether to shorten 10-end games to eight and fall in line with tour and Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events.

The general consensus among curlers is eight ends is the way to go without a sliver of doubt.

“I feel like it’s still enough time for the better team to win,” Sinclair said. “It’s easier to play and easier to watch to keep the viewer’s attention. It’ll be a little bit easier on us athletes, 10 ends is a long time, and we’re playing a lot of tournaments throughout the year. It’ll help my body a little bit.”

Stay tuned for an in-depth look at the issue later this week as a decision should come quickly during the WCF’s congress and annual general assembly.

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