Homan’s roller-coaster 2018 from Olympic heartbreak to GSOC redemption

Rachel Homan knocks off defending Boost National champions in Team Einarson to claim the title, for her 9th Grand Slam of Curling win.

Rachel Homan raised her Goldline brush and smiled as her final stone connected to run Kerri Einarson out of rocks in the Boost National women’s final. A rather routine shot to wrap up a calendar year that was anything but.

Homan’s title victory in mid-December at CBS Arena in Conception Bay South, N.L., was about more than claiming her ninth career Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling women’s championship and matching Jennifer Jones for the most all time. It also closed the book on a whirlwind 2018 for her Ottawa-based club, which also includes third Emma Miskew, second Joanne Courtney and lead Lisa Weagle.

And what a roller coaster it was from the heartbreak of missing the podium at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to finishing the year capturing back-to-back Grand Slams and reclaiming the No. 1 ranking in the world.

“We’ve worked really hard this year,” Homan said after defeating Einarson 4-1. “Obviously, a little bit disappointing after the Olympics. We didn’t do as well as we wanted to do for Canada, so we’re working as hard as ever and want to keep pushing the game and keep pushing ourselves. We’re just having a lot of fun right now.”

You couldn’t have asked for a better start to 2018 for Team Homan. The foursome earned the right to wear the Maple Leaf just weeks prior to ringing in the year at the Canadian Olympic curling trials on home ice. Electric chants of “Let’s go, Homan!” and “Great shot!” from their family, friends and legions of fans echoed throughout Canadian Tire Centre as they were practically perfect sustaining just one loss in the opening draw to Chelsea Carey’s crew before winning nine straight including an avenging 6-5 victory over Carey in the final.

Competing for Canada at the Winter Olympics almost seemed like destiny for Homan, who had been a prodigy of the sport since racking up championships in bantam and keeping up with the (Jennifer) Joneses of the curling world as a teenager buzzing on the bonspiel circuit. The budding superstar Homan made her Grand Slam debut at the 2009 Players’ Championship — before she had even represented Canada at the world juniors — and qualified for the playoffs to kickstart an impressive streak of 18 consecutive playoff appearances in the elite series.

Even if you had to handpick a team to send to Pyeongchang, Team Homan would be the heavy favourite as the reigning world champions who ran the table to gold in China.

The Olympic tournament is a completely different beast, however. Team Homan had the second-best shooting percentage in Pyeongchang and only two of their nine games were decided by more than a couple points — both lopsided victories in their favour — but sometimes being good just isn’t good enough in a game of inches and they happened to come out on the wrong side of the inch too many times missing the playoffs with a 4-5 round-robin record. It was the first time a Canadian curling team had failed to reach the medal round since the sport was added to the official Olympic program in 1998.

A slow start proved to be their downfall as Homan stumbled out of the gate and into a 0-3 hole early including an unusual 9-8 loss to Denmark (their lone W of the tournament as they bottomed out at 1-8) that was overshadowed by a burned rock controversy in the fifth and finished with a steal in an extra end.

Returning to the familiar confines of the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling, which had become like comfort food for the club, may have seemed like the perfect remedy for Team Homan to bounce back but it was actually in the series prior to Pyeongchang where inconsistency plagued their play. Team Homan missed the playoffs in back-to-back Grand Slams to start the 2017-18 season and followed that up with quarterfinal exits (i.e. zero playoff wins) in the next two events. Something was off.

The Players’ Championship in April at Toronto’s Mattamy Athletic Centre was their first competition since returning from the Winter Olympics empty-handed. Team Homan experimented with Courtney and Weagle switching spots in the throwing order but that didn’t provide any sparks whatsoever as they finished 0-5 to go winless in a Grand Slam for the first time ever. Suffice to say, once the team returned to the ice a few weeks later at the Humpty’s Champions Cup, Weagle and Courtney were back at their regular positions.

By the time the Players’ Championship rolled around, pretty much everyone else had set their rosters for the following season with plans in place for the next quadrennial although all was still quiet on the Team Homan front. Would they split up or stick together? It wasn’t until after the event when they announced the latter. The only change Team Homan made was parting ways with mental coach Adam Kingsbury and welcoming back three-time world champion Marcel Rocque, who was their coach prior to his stint with the Chinese National Team.

While the season-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup at Calgary’s WinSport Arena served as a swan song for many teams, it was also the start of something new for Team Homan as they successfully defended the title. It seemed unlikely at first as they fell to a 1-2 record and were in danger of missing the playoffs once again until they stole singles in the final couple ends to defeat Kristin MacDiarmid’s team 6-4 during the final women’s round-robin draw and squeezed into a tiebreaker. Their backs were against the walls once more facing Alina Paetz’s team and needing to score three points in the eighth end to advance.

The rally magic continued into the quarterfinals with Homan scoring three in the seventh and stealing two in the eighth for a 6-3 surge over former teammate Jamie Sinclair. Another comeback in the semifinals saw Homan trailing 5-0 after two ends against Eve Muirhead’s team only to recover with a three-ender in the third followed by a steal of one in the fourth and two in the fifth to pull ahead. A deuce in seven and a steal in eight completed the 9-6 win and a ticket to the championship game against Einarson.

A steal of two points late in the seventh end proved to be key for the 7-6 victory to reclaim the Humpty’s Champions Cup.

“It feels really great this year, especially after our performance at the Players’ Championship where we were just a little tired,” Miskew said. “To come back this week and battle through a lot of tough games where we were down in points, it feels really good and really satisfying to know that we can still plug away and win events.”

This was a different kind of Team Homan than we had seen before that now had to rely on patience and perseverance to pull off some gritty wins.

“In the past, we never really had to win games like that and then when we started to have to, we didn’t know how,” Miskew said. “This week it feels great to finally learn how we can win games that we don’t have control of and find a way to win despite how things are going out there. We weren’t perfect all week, we weren’t playing our very best but we stayed in every game and really tried to find a way to win.”

Team Homan maintained that level of success into the 2018-19 Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling campaign where they’re now amid a run like we haven’t seen from anyone since, well, Team Homan in 2015 when they captured three consecutive titles. Homan came close to claiming a Grand Slam title during late October’s Canadian Beef Masters in Truro, N.S., leading by two points heading into the final frame of the championship game against Anna Hasselborg. The Swedish side held the hammer though and capitalized on an opportunity to hit for the decisive three count.

Homan didn’t leave anyone off of the hook two weeks later at the Tour Challenge in Thunder Bay, Ont., charging back with a vengeance by going on an undefeated 7-0 run that was punctuated with an 8-4 win over Tracy Fleury’s team in the final.

“We battled tough all week,” Miskew said. “It’s nice, after the last one especially, to come off and win the next one after the Masters, it’s great.”

There were some tense moments like in the semifinals against Nina Roth where Miskew pulled off a tricky triple takeout in the extra end by peeling one guard that redirected another into the house and eliminated one more to clear the deck and set up Homan for the victory.

“That was shot of the year so far, I think, and the game-winner for sure,” Courtney declared. “She threw it great and Rachel called the line perfectly. Really pumped when she made it.”

Courtney added after the final it felt great for the team to be hitting that consistency again.

“We had spotty performances over the last couple of seasons, especially in the Slams,” she said. “It feels good to be getting closer to that nice consistent play.”

After Team Homan celebrated GSOC title win No. 9 at the Boost National, the skip was already plotting the next chapter with a busy back-half to 2018-19 ahead after the calendar flips. Right off the bat in January alone Homan has an opportunity to make series history at the Meridian Canadian Open — targeting a record-breaking 10th women’s title — followed by provincial playdowns and the long road to represent Canada once again on the world stage.

Homan is just heating up this season and her confident competitive fire burns bright.

“We want to try and crack double digits before the year is up and I think we can definitely do that,” Homan said. “We’re excited to set that as our goal and to keep trying to win more games.”

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