SYDNEY, N.S. — As happy as Rachel Brown was to be back on the ice, Alberta teammate Dana Ferguson might’ve been even more thrilled to have her return.
Brown, who throws lead stones for Chelsea Carey’s club, missed the first few months of the season after giving birth to her first child Finn in October and longtime front-end partner Ferguson, who plays second, struggled not only adjusting to different substitutes but a new skip, too.
Ferguson and Brown have formed a unique bond over the years, especially time their previous six seasons with skip Val Sweeting winning back-to-back Scotties silver medals plus three Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles and a Pinty’s Cup. The dynamic duo even have their own shared Instagram account for fans to follow their adventures.
Although Brown may have missed time, she hasn’t missed a beat once she got caught up to speed following December’s Canada Cup. Team Carey is in peak form winning provincial playdowns last month to reach the Scotties Tournament of Hearts where they’re currently sitting tied at the top of the table in the Canadian women’s curling championship.
“It was hard,” Brown said Thursday afternoon. “My first spiel was Canada Cup and I had some definite July throws where there’s just like, whoa, that is not even close to the broom.
“Just even remembering the systems and stuff, I was rusty. I took a lot of time off, so I was just a little bit off. It was tricky too because I was so used to Val and them and then I had all of these new systems I had to learn.”
Although Breanne Knapp and Heather Rogers filled in admirably as super spares, it’s hard to replicate what Ferguson and Brown have developed together over the years.
“It didn’t help that I wasn’t sweeping either,” said Ferguson, who held the broom in the house while third Sarah Wilkes swept during skip stones at the start of the season. “I was out of my comfort zone, for sure, at the beginning of the season. It was kind of fun but it was definitely really, really weird not playing with Rachel because we’ve played together for 10 years.”
Ferguson added there were other intangibles besides just throwing and sweeping that affected the dynamic that she didn’t even foresee until Brown wasn’t around.
“There are certain things we do that you don’t even realize the other person is doing,” she said. “She always cleans up there, I always get the rock out. There are certain things where when you’re with someone else it’s like, oh they’re not doing that. You’re kind of feeling like you’re not sure what you should be doing. When you’re with her, it’s just easy.”
Ferguson added and snapped her fingers: “Just with her, it’s there.”
Brown has literally been juggling curling with her newborn as little Finny B was on hand during this interview. A supporting cast of family members are helping Brown through the season to make it work.
“It’s nice being on mat leave, that is glorious,” Brown said with a laugh. “It’s great during the day, bring him to the rink, we practice and if he’s crying Dana takes him. My mom and my husband come everywhere, so it’s nice because they’re really supportive.”
There was no question Brown and Ferguson would get along with Wilkes, formerly with Shannon Kleibrink’s team, as she had been a longtime friend with the two playing out of the Saville Centre as well. Adding Carey introduced some challenges at first but it’s safe to say things have gelled smoothing since.
“It’s great. She’s really easy to play with,” Brown said. “I came in and the first time she saw me throw was at the Canada Cup in a game, so it was really easy. It’s kind of seamless, actually, because I’ve only been on the team for just two months.”
Ferguson said it’s also been really fun getting to know a new skip.
“You take a lot for granted when you play with the same people for a really long time,” she said. “Getting to know her and hearing different stories, just how our experiences at different places. It’s been really fun getting to know her.”
The 2016 Canadian champion Carey had her own challenges to work with as she never had a left-handed player sliding out of the other hack on any of her teams until Ferguson came along. The team worked with famous southpaw and Olympic gold medallist Marc Kennedy, who essentially wrote the playbook for how a lefty can adjust their style of play. Kennedy was able to tweak his style during his time with legendary skip Kevin Martin so that he was throwing more like a right-handed player.
“I had always played with another lefty [Sweeting] or I was skipping before, so it really didn’t matter. You can throw it,” Ferguson said. “Here my rocks weren’t doing what everyone else’s rocks were doing early and it was really hard. We talked to Marc, and he kind of moved my rock over and made me throw more like a righty and it instantly had success. I started making shots, Chelsea could see the line so easily and it’s really helped us.”
Team Carey had been on a red hot run to start the Scotties Tournament of Hearts winning seven straight games until cooling down Thursday with back-to-back losses to Canada’s Jennifer Jones and Suzanne Birt of P.E.I. Alberta was still locked in a three-way tie for first place and the skid didn’t deter Ferguson and Brown’s determination.
“We got caught in really one end [against Jones], one kind of path and we were chasing,” Brown said. “We had to chase one of the best teams in the world. We’re really happy with our precision and are going to keep building from this.”
Ferguson added: “It’s been great. Yes, it didn’t go our way, but we’re still making shots, we’re still talking, we’re staying precise for the most parts.”
Jones eliminated early for first time
Jennifer Jones had always qualified for the playoffs at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts until now.
The six-time Scotties winner, who also happens to be the reigning Canadian and world champion, lost 8-6 to Northern Ontario’s Krista McCarville in the afternoon draw and was eliminated from contention with a 5-5 record and one game to go.
“That was a nail-biter for sure,” Northern Ontario third Kendra Lilly said. “We’re playing pretty well, just hanging in every end and putting some pressure on. Krista made more than a few game-savers but then towards the end of the game we just stepped up our play and set it up pretty nicely.”
It is Jones’s 14th appearance in the Canadian women’s curling championship and a testament to her greatest that it took this long for her to miss the playoffs.
“I’m pretty disappointed,” Jones said. “It’s one of our favourite events. We really thought if we won two today we might have a chance. Just not the way we wanted to end the week. It was just one of those weeks where every time we’d throw a rock it just seemed to not work out. Sometimes that happens.”
Jones trailed by one but held the hammer coming home. She couldn’t generate the winning deuce and things went from bad to worse as her final draw to force an extra end didn’t even make it into the rings and shocked the crowd.
“I know that’s tough,” Lilly said. “You always want to win the game on a nice shot or something like that. None of us were expecting her to not make that but we’ll take it.”
The 44-year-old Jones said she just couldn’t figure out the ice this week but also credited McCarville for putting up a fight.
“She made a bunch of big shots to save them,” Jones said. “We had them in trouble early and just couldn’t make that big runback to get a big end. She made some great shots. It was a close game, we just, unfortunately, didn’t execute in the last end. I thought we had the deuce set up and just didn’t make it go.”
History was made in the final Championship Pool game in the evening after Jones defeated B.C. 5-4 to claim sole possession of first place on the all-time Scotties win list with victory No. 141. Jones, who broke a tie with Colleen Jones, wasn’t overly concerned about that milestone during the week and it wasn’t until after the game when second Jocelyn Peterman made her aware of the honour.
“Obviously, a hugely disappointing week,” Jones said. “But … it feels pretty good to have that record with all of these amazing players out there. It’s nice.”
Eyes on your own sheet
It can get distracting out there focusing on your own game knowing the other matches on the ice can also affect playoff position.
“It’s actually really hard not to look at the other sheets because what happens in the other games really matters for us, too,” said skip Casey Scheidegger, whose Wild Card team eliminated B.C. 11-6. “It’s hard not to be glancing at the P.E.I.-Ontario game and Saskatchewan-Alberta game as well, but you’ve got to stay focused on yourselves and do what you can do.”
Lilly explained how difficult it can be to block out the noise elsewhere and try to control the things you can actually control.
“Every game out there is a good game and we just have to win the games for us and not worry about what’s going on,” she said. “We just want to go out and make all the shots that we can and hope for the best.”
Here’s the playoff scenario
Despite the mess entering Friday, it was a clean qualification with no tiebreaker(s) needed following round-robin play.
Carey’s 9-8 extra-end victory to oust Scheidegger gave Alberta the No. 1 seed with a 9-2 total record.
Saskatchewan doubled up on Ontario 6-3 and Northern Ontario beat P.E.I. 7-6. With Saskatchewan, Ontario and Northern Ontario all deadlocked at 8-3 it came down to the head-to-head records among the three teams. As a result, Saskatchewan secured the No. 2 spot (2-0 over the other two) while Ontario settled in at No. 3 (at 1-1) and Northern Ontario finished No. 4 (at 0-2).
Alberta and Saskatchewan meet in the Page 1-2 playoff game with the winner advancing straight to the final. The loser will have a second life as they’ll drop into the semifinal against the Page 3-4 playoff winner between Ontario and Northern Ontario (loser of the 3-4 game is eliminated). The winner of Sunday’s semifinal then joins the victor of the Page 1-2 playoff game in the final.
Did you get all that?