June252014

Which USA teams would be the best?

USA Curling released their list of combine invitees for their High Performance Program today. Basically the name of the game is: you aren’t going to build your own championship team, USA Curling is going to do that for you. After falling short of Olympic expectations for two cycles (read: not last place), they’re trying something new. I have no idea if it’ll work, but at least it’s different!

There are no surprise names on the list, but the omission of some names stand out:

1. No Pete Fenson, but apparently he retired. Was there a news story about Pete Fenson retiring? You’d think the most successful USA men’s skip of the last 10 years stepping away from competitive curling would be bigger news. But then again USA curling news isn’t really something that hits ESPN. Still.

2. Nobody from Tyler George’s team. No Brady Clark either. And one player from Team Shuster is missing: vice Jeff Isaacson, who truth be told could have had a better Olympics.

3. On the women’s side, it looks like Team Pottinger is off the radar. Only their lead is on the short list. No Cassie Potter either. I never heard specifically that Erika Brown would retire, although the omission of her name is probably a good indicator of that.

On the whole I think this committee could put together a very fierce women’s team, since many good candidates are on teams who may not have been as strong. But I am going to laugh if they just pick an existing men’s team like Shuster or McCormick.

I can’t read into the mind of the USA curling coaches, but one hypothetical team intrigues me: Heath McCormick, Chris Plys, Jared Zezel, John Landsteiner, with alternate Joe Polo. Basically fusing two teams together, and throwing in Fenson’s former second. For a women’s team … you’re probably going to see a team assembled from scratch. So it’s a total guess, but how about Nina Spatola, Courtney George, Jessica Schultz and Tabitha Peterson, with Deb McCormick as a veteran alternate?

Mix and match all you want, but we’ll just have to see what the committee comes back with, assume that these will be the 2018 USA Olympic teams, and hope for the best.

April172014

The 2016 USA curling championships will be in Jacksonville

Yep, there it is on the USCA website. We’re going to have a curling championship in Florida. This is apparently something they’ve been working on for a few years, trying to get some niche interests into the region.

Currently there are zero active curling clubs in Florida — the closest one is Atlanta — but there used to be one in the Tampa area. This is certainly part of their attempt to expand curling interest into states with pretty super awesome winters, such as the Continental Cup in Las Vegas and the clinic in Hawaii last year. They haven’t announced the facility but it’ll probably be the Jacksonville Ice & SportsPlex, and with any luck they can also start a recreational curling club there, similar to what Kalamazoo did — they founded a club in 2008 and hosting the 2010 nationals really helped solidify their membership.

My only concern is maybe the ice conditions won’t be great down there, which can happen in warm weather. Bad ice can really level the playing field, and that’s really not the point. Whatever team the USCA anoints as the Next Gold Medal Favorite will have to go down there and compete. But I’m not concerned about interest being generated down there. I’m sure Florida doesn’t care only because they don’t have access to the sport.

Hopefully it all works out, because Florida needs curling in the worst way.

April32014
“Japan has never done better than ninth at worlds, and given the field, I don’t see that changing.”

From my WMCC 2014 preview.

Japan reached the tiebreaker game, losing to Sweden by a single point, finishing 7-4 in the round robin and fifth overall. They beat, among others, Kevin Koe’s Canadian rink, three teams that played in Sochi, and a former Olympic bronze medal team. Predictions are hard.

March282014

2014 World Men’s Curling Championship Preview

Sure, this isn’t the end of the season. There are a couple of major World Curling Tour events left in the season, such as the $100,000-purse Players Championship, but ostensibly the world championship feels like the conclusion. It’s the end of the road of playdowns in all countries leading up to this. There’s nowhere else to advance.

It’s also the start of the new Olympic cycle, meaning all of these countries are eligible to contend for the 2018 games either automatically or through the Olympic Qualifying Event, depending on how well they do. This men’s field includes five returning Olympic squads, plus a former Olympic medal team and a former world champion. So there’s lots of power at the top. A couple countries are bringing their B team needing to showcase their depth, others not lucky enough to qualify for the Olympics are here trying to make some noise.

The fun starts March 29 and goes through April 6 in Beijing. Some games will be streamed on WorldCurlingTV. Lucky dogs in Canada get some of the Canadian games and championships on TSN. Select games will be on in the USA through NBC Universal Sports, and other European countries as well as China and Brazil (!!!) will also air some games.

CANADA
WCT Rank: 4
Skip: Kevin Koe
Third: Pat Simmons
Second: Carter Rycroft
Lead: Nolan Thiessen
Alternate: Jamie King

Let’s talk about this team for a minute. First off, any Canadian men’s champion is the obvious favorite, and this team is no exception, especially since they won the 2010 world title in a similar situation — great team in a slightly depleted field. But there are reports that Koe’s team is disbanding with Marc Kennedy, Ben Hebert and Brent Laing playing for Koe. The only one confirmed is Laing — Carter Rycroft has announced plans to take next year off for family reasons, and while this current team may know and accept the real truth, this has to be one of the first “media distractions” for a freaking curling team. But distractions are usually overblown; plus they’re going to be in China the entire time and likely can’t even read the Canadian newspapers over there.

CHINA
WCT Rank: 15
Skip: Rui Liu
Third: Xiaoming Xu
Second: Dexin Ba
Lead: Jialiang Zang
Alternate: Dejia Zou

The Chinese team had been proving themselves all year headed into the Olympics, so much that a fourth-place finish was almost disappointing for them. Liu was arguably the top skip during the round robin in Sochi, and his shotmaking carried the team. If ever there was a new country that could turn curling into a national craze, this is the one, and with the games in Beijing and a popular team riding a wave of success, maybe this could be the start of something. But Liu has to be wary of the Olympic hangover — this is a lot of games and they may want to rotate in their alternate to stay fresh.

CZECH REPUBLIC
WCT Rank: 36
Skip: Jiri Snitil
Third: Martin Snitil
Second: Jakub Bares
Lead: Jindrich Kitzberger
Alternate: Marek Vydra

I’m a big fan of this team. For one, they’re a nascent curling country. Two of their players (the Snitil brothers) also have some rockin’ beards. Jiri Snitil looks like an old fisherman. And they’re by all accounts extremely nice guys. I thought they’d make the Olympics, even though it could have been at the USA’s expense. They blew two chances to get there, losing to Germany in the first qualifier and then to John Shuster’s group in the second. (Yes, John Shuster can win big games.) But they’ve been knocking on the door for a while. With a couple big wins in last year’s world championship (such as Canada), they won’t be in the playoff conversation but could make it interesting for lots of contending teams.

DENMARK
WCT Rank: 17
Skip: Rasmus Stjerne
Third: Johnny Frederiksen
Second: Lars Vilandt
Lead: Troels Harry
Alternate: Oliver Dupont

A 4-5 finish at the Olympics was right about how I pegged this team. Given they finished fourth in their last three European/world events, it feels like a setback. But they did bag some big wins against their northern neighbors (Norway, Sweden) so even though the Swedes won a medal, they won the informal medal of Best Scandinavian Curling Country. Again on paper they are the fourth best team, so a medal is obviously their goal. The country hasn’t had one since 1990 when Tommy Stjerne skipped his team to a bronze. Yep, that’s his dad.

GERMANY
WCT Rank: 49
Fourth: Felix Schulze
Skip: Johnny Jahr
Second: Christopher Bartsch
Lead: Sven Goldemann
Alternate: Peter Rickmers

I fell pretty hard for this team for a lot of reasons. First off, everybody loves a loser who yells loudly. Plus, they’re old German guys, so they probably have better stories than you. Also, Johnny Jahr’s basically a millionaire who invests in stocks and casinos but put his Deutsche Mark-making on hold to return to the world curling stage, and that’s basically my dream. Schulze can make some shots, but the age and depth isn’t really on this team’s side to do more than net a couple of wins.

JAPAN
WCT Rank: 41
Skip: Yusuke Morozumi
Third: Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi
Second: Tetsuro Shimizu
Lead: Kosuke Morozumi

It was a rough season for Morozumi’s team. They finished last among eight in the OQE, and last year at worlds they finished 3-8. But they were the only team to beat both Canada and Sweden, who finished first/second in that event. Go figure. So they’re a team that can run hot and cold, but probably not hot enough to finish above .500. They’re still the undisputed second-best country in the Pacific-Asia region, but Japan has never done better than ninth at worlds, and given the field, I don’t see that changing.

NORWAY
WCT Rank: 10
Skip: Thomas Ulsrud
Third: Torger Nergård
Second: Christoffer Svae
Lead: Håvard Vad Petersson
Alternate: Markus Høiberg

The are rumblings that this could be the last run for Team Trousers. It’s not necessarily a matter of age, although Ulsrud is 42 and Nergård is 39. But it seems more like real life is starting to interfere, and you always have to defer to that. Svae (the brains behind the wild pants idea) and Vad Petersson could spearhead a future team should the backend retire/step away, and it could all depend on the results of the world championship. They could win it. That would be a heck of a curtain call.

RUSSIA
WCT Rank: 43
Fourth: Alexey Stukalskiy
Third: Evgeniy Arkhipov
Skip: Andrey Drozdov
Lead: Petr Dron
Alternate: Sergey Glukhov

The Russian team stirred up the Sochi crowd, but mostly because they were also from Russia and people like cheering for home teams. A 3-6 finish was probably better than I had pegged them — Switzerland and USA had 10th end issues against them — and they like high scoring, lots-of-rocks-in-play ends. The problem is that can get them in trouble on the world stage. If there is a strength on the team, it’s Dron, a giant hulk of a man at 6’6” and a powerful sweeper. Looks like he’s actually playing on a mini curling sheet. But away from a friendly crowd, I’m not a believer yet.

SCOTLAND
WCT Rank: 71
Skip: Ewan MacDonald
Third: Duncan Fernie
Second: David Reid
Lead: Euan Byers
Alternate: Glen Muirhead

On the heels of David Murdoch and company’s silver medal, Scotland is trucking out a B team to send to Beijing. The MacDonald team has a wealth of experience, starting with the skip, who was part of three previous world titles dating back to 1999, two of them vicing for David Murdoch. This will be his first time as skip on the world stage. Euan Byers was also part of that world championship Murdoch team. Although they ran through the Scottish national championship undefeated, there’s a hefty mix of veterans and newbs to the world stage on this team that will likely put them near the bottom of the crowd.

http://results.worldcurling.org/Championship.aspx?id=488

SWEDEN
WCT Rank: 19
Skip: Oskar Eriksson
Third: Kristian Lindström
Second: Markus Eriksson
Lead: Christoffer Sundgren
Alternate: Gustav Eskilsson

Niklas Edin finally reached the Olympic podium. I mean, it was only two Olympics so this wasn’t exactly a drought. But perhaps to give their team a break, the Swedish high performance committee selected the B team to go to worlds, even though they re-sent Sigfridsson’s team on the women’s side. Sweden thought highly enough for Eriksson to act as the county’s alternate in recent worlds and Olympics (so he is officially an Olympic bronze medalist), including playing 12 games in the 2012 worlds when Edin nursed a back injury. But this is his first time as the skip on the adult stage. They were 2011 junior champions, won last year’s World University Games and had some good showings at major events this year. They can compete and win lots of games here, hence why Sweden is confident in sending them.

SWITZERLAND
WCT Rank: 21
Fourth: Benoit Schwarz
Skip: Peter de Cruz
Second: Dominik Märki
Lead: Valentin Tanner
Alternate: Claudio Pätz

One of the surprising under-performances in world curling was that of Sven Michel’s Swiss team after winning the European championship. They went 3-6 in Sochi, including a bizarre loss to Russia after allowing a steal of three in the 10th, and things snowballed from there. Michel’s team then plodded through the Swiss championship, eventually losing to Team de Cruz in the finals. An upset, perhaps. But this is a young exciting team as well that won the world junior title in 2010 and runner-up in 2011. They’ve played well in some high profile spiels and should be up to the challenge for their first world experience. I doubted Binia Feltscher once. I shant again doubt a rookie Swiss team.

UNITED STATES
WCT Rank: 25
Skip: Pete Fenson
Third: Shawn Rojeski
Second: Joe Polo
Lead: Ryan Brunt
Alternate: Jared Zezel

It’s hard to gauge how close this team was to making the Olympics. Yes, they lost to John Shuster 11-1 in the deciding US Olympic trials game. But how would they have fared at the OQE? We *know* that Shuster took his team to Germany and qualified. What Fenson would have done there remains to be seen, but we may get a taste of what could have been against a field like this, namely some of the third-tier teams like Germany, Japan and the Czech Republic. We can keep touting this team as an Olympic bronze medalist, and not to dismiss that feat because that’s a really hard thing to do, but that was eight years ago, including John Shuster as lead. This will be Fenson’s eighth world appearance and third in the last five years. They finished fourth in 2010 but a disappointing 10th in ‘11. Anything in between is possible.

PREDICTION:

*Canada 9-2
*China 8-3
*Norway 8-3
*Switzerland 7-4
Sweden 6-5
Denmark 6-5
USA 5-6
Czech Republic 5-6
Germany 4-7
Scotland 3-8
Japan 3-8
Russia 2-9

1-2 game: Canada d. China
3-4 game: Switzerland d. Norway
Semifinal: China d. Switzerland
Bronze: Norway d. Switzerland
Gold: Canada d. China

March242014

The Swiss?!

Entering the women’s world championship, someone was going to win their first world title. When Sweden lost to Korea in the tiebreaker game, we were also going to have brand new gold and silver medalists. Of the four playoff teams, only Rachel Homan’s Canadian team had even medaled (bronze last year), and they seemed like the natural heiresses to the world title, with Russia taking silver.

I gotta stop counting out the Swiss.

The Swiss national champions of Binia Feltscher, Irene Schori, Franziska Kaufmann and Christine Urech scored back-to-back three-enders in the eighth and ninth to defeat Canada 9-5 in Canada. Entering the championship, I don’t think I had even heard of the team and I FOLLOW THIS STUFF. Looking up their ranking on the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit, they were essentially the fourth-best team from Switzerland and Feltscher won an Olympic silver medal as Mirjam Ott’s vice in 2006. That was it.

Everything pointed to a Canadian victory. For one, they were in Canada. They didn’t lose a game at the Tournament of Hearts, and well sure they lost to the Swiss in the round-robin, but met them again in the 1-2 playoff game and trounced them 8-3 so that loss had to be a fluke, right?

Turns out no, actually, proving once again that this sport is just a cruel, cruel jerk that doesn’t let anybody just coast through without resistance. After some back-and-forth deuces, Canada had the hammer and a 4-3 lead after six ends, which seemed like enough. They were forced to a point in the seventh. But then they got into a hot mess in the eighth:

Canada = red
Switzerland = yellow

I think Canada was just trying to angle off the red next to the broom and smash the shot rock, leaving it buried behind the top yellow and make it near impossible to score two. With so many rocks in play, big weight is going to shuffle the deck.

On first glance, she made it! And then the dust settles, and the thrown rock IS GOING THE WRONG WAY

The ninth end was another series of bad events, forcing Homan into a difficult angle runback to hit any of three counting Swiss stones, and struck none of them.

Switzerland 9, Canada 5.

(Highlight video)

I don’t want to administer personality tests on teams, but it seemed like Team Switzerland was way looser than Team Canada. And it’s easy to see why: Feltscher said after the game that their team goal was to finish maybe fifth or sixth (and this is where I had them). They were curling on house money. All the pressure was on Canada to win, as always. Homan’s team missed out on the Olympics, which I thought they’d make, and they had to improve on bronze from last year (which they did). But from the level of expectations, this was a disappointment.

But this should put the rest of the world on notice: Switzerland’s talent pool is deep as hell, when your fourth best team is winning titles. Canada still reigns, and yes they just grabbed gold in Sochi, but in terms of true world titles, they haven’t won it in six years, their longest drought ever. But they are always favored. And it’s high time to start penciling in Switzerland on the podium, regardless of who they send.

The rest of the world is catching up as well; Russia hit the podium for the first time in their history, and Korea reached playoffs for their second time ever — all in the last three years. And with the spread of the sport, it’s only time before more countries start to challenge, especially in eastern Europe. Watch out, Canada.

March212014

Women’s World Curling Playoffs Preview

After the round robin:

10-1 Canada
9-2 Switzerland
8-3 Russia
8-3 Sweden
8-3 Korea
————
6-5 China
6-5 USA
3-8 Czech Republic
3-8 Germany
2-9 Scotland
2-9 Denmark
1-10 Latvia

So here’s the playoff format (all times EDT):

Tiebreaker: Korea vs. Sweden, 1 p.m. Friday
1 vs 2 Game: Canada vs. Switzerland, 6:30 p.m. Friday
3 vs 4 Game: Russia vs. Korea-Sweden winner, 8:00 am Saturday
Semifinal: 1-2 loser vs. 2-4 winner, 1:00 pm Saturday
Bronze: Semifinal loser vs. 3-4 loser, 11:00 am Sunday
Gold: 1-2 winner vs. Semifinal winner, 6:30 pm Sunday

(All games should be on WorldCurlingTV’s YouTube page, although I don’t see the tiebreaker?)

The playoff teams were who I expected, other than Switzerland which has been resoundingly impressive. That pushed Sweden and Korea to a tiebreaker, and I’d bet on Sweden winning that game, although they look to be tiring somewhat — and you’ll have that with players in their late 30s on their 12th game in a week. However, if you need a good Big Four parallel, Sweden is the San Antonio Spurs of the early 2000s and Maria Prytz is Tim Duncan. The entire team lacks flash but they are consistent, polished, and nearly impossible to beat when they’re on.

The winner plays Russia, who I think is a good bet to win the 3-4 game if Korea takes the tiebreaker, less so if they face Sweden. Russia dropped a bad game to the Czechs to finish the round robin. Had they won they’d have been in the 1-2 game. It’d be a shame if they lost and settled for bronze, but the country’s previous best at worlds was fifth, so they’re already in uncharted territory.

But the actual 1-2 game is going to be Canada-Switzerland, half of which is no surprise. The one wrinkle is Canada’s only round-robin loss was to this Swiss team, and it felt entirely uncharacteristic. That probably shouldn’t happen again — Rachel Homan’s team is too good to lose this, and they’ll go right to the championship.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Russia, Sweden or Switzerland win the semifinal game to challenge Canada. At this point it may not matter. Korea would be a wild surprise, but even if Russia or Switzerland makes this game, neither team has ever played in a world championship. I’ll say Russia makes it to the championship against Canada, and you can probably guess what happens next.

March192014

2014 Women’s World Curling: Entering The Final Day

Here’s the sitch:

8-1 Canada*
8-1 Switzerland*
7-2 Sweden
7-2 Russia
6-3 China
6-3 Korea
5-4 USA

* - guaranteed at least a tiebreaker

Eliminated from playoffs:

2-7 Czech Republic
2-7 Scotland
1-8 Germany
1-8 Denmark
1-8 Latvia

Canada has mostly looked like their unbeatable selves. The shock was when they dropped an 8-2 decision to Switzerland after eight ends. They won by the skin of their knuckles against a reeling German rink but they still look like the favorite. Games left: CHN, SWE

I say all that and yet Switzerland is tied right with them — a big surprise, and they also beat Canada. Other than a lopsided loss to Korea, Team Binia Feltscher — by no means the top Swiss team — has barreled through the field like they’re some sort of great Swiss team, or even a Canadian team. Who do they think they are. Games left: RUS, CZE

Sweden hasn’t shown much signs of silver medal hangover, and Maria Prytz just continues to make perfect shots to save ends and change the momentum in their favor. Games left: CHN, CAN, and that’s a tough way to finish — they could be looking at Tiebreaker City.

Which brings us to Russia, another Olympic team rebounding nicely from disappointment. The Sweden victory was big early on and they’re also atop the leaderboard in team curling percentage. I still have no clue how Anna Sidorova can deliver with such accuracy by sliding upright on her toes but I guess as a former figure skater that stuff just works for her. Games left: SUI, CZE

China has grown up mighty fast — just in this last week, actually. After huge struggles against the USA and Switzerland to start the week, they hit their stride with six straight wins before a big loss to Russia. They look like a young team playing their first worlds, because that’s what they are. Games left: SWE, CAN. Ouch.

Korea’s right where I thought they’d be: middle of the pack and a dangerous team for anyone. They’ve suffered no bad losses, and are the only team to knock off Switzerland, but do have a good path to the playoffs if they continue this way. Games left: USA, SCO

Which brings us to the USA, the team looking on the outside of the playoff picture. They started off great at 3-0, averaging over 10 points per game, then came the fat part of their schedule: Sweden, Canada, Russia, Switzerland — all losses. The Russia one stung the most, because they were in position to win. A close victory against the Czechs led to a big Latvia win and here they are at 5-4.

To get to the playoffs, the Americans obviously wins against Korea and Scotland have to happen. But then they need two losses from either Sweden or Russia. Best case, they force a tiebreaker with Sweden (and possibly China too), but I don’t think it’ll get that far.

The rest of the teams — Czech Republic, Scotland, Latvia, Germany, Denmark — are all down there for a reason. Little to no world experience (only the Czechs and Danes have been here before, and the German team is working in a new skip). They’re a combined 7-38 with no wins against the top seven.

The WorldCurling TV games tomorrow are SWE-CHN (8:30 am EDT) and CHN-CAN (1:30 pm). If you haven’t been watching, the feed’s pretty solid. They do “live look-ins” to other games usually for each end’s hammer, or flip to another game if the feature match ends early. One of the commentators is Ann Swisshelm, who most recently played lead for Team USA at Sochi. She’s now retired, and she’s done a fine job of commentating both here and USA nationals. Hopefully she keeps doing that.

March142014

2014 Women’s World Curling Championship Preview

WHEN: March 15-23
WHERE: Saint John, New Brunswick
HOW TO WATCH: Canadian games on TSN and later on-demand at curling.ca/curlingtv, select games livestreamed on WorldCurlingTV’s YouTube page. NBC’s Universal Sports will also air a few games, if you have a subscription to that.

It feels a little weird to follow up the Olympics with a world championship, but that’s what we’re doing. Looking at the field, there aren’t a ton of familiar names unless you know what you’re looking for.

For example, the defending world champion (Eve Muirhead) isn’t here. Neither is the 2012 champion Mirjam Ott. Three teams have a skip who has never before skipped at worlds (China, Latvia, Scotland) with another (Germany) who has thrown fourth but not as skip. Only three teams (Canada, Sweden, Russia) were at last year’s worlds. And only two players in the field have championship experience as non-alternates: USA skip Alison Pottinger (vice in 2003) and German lead Stella Heiss (2010).

Latvia, Germany and the Czech Republic are the three countries here that didn’t reach the Olympics; Japan is the only Olympic team who didn’t qualify for 2014 worlds. Of the nine returning Olympic countries, three are sending the same Olympic teams.

So there are going to be a lot of new faces, which means not all tip-top teams will be here, but the quality of play will still be high and it will also help us identify the deep countries.

Besides Canada, of course.

Anyway, here are the team-by-team looks:

CANADA
WCT Rank: 3
Skip: Rachel Homan
Third: Emma Miskew
Second: Alison Kreviazuk
Lead: Lisa Weagle
Alternate: Stephanie LeDrew
Coach: Earle Morris

This stat may blow you away: not only did Homan, the defending Scotties champ, win every single game at the ‘14 Scotties, but she never had to throw her last stone in any game. They were the first undefeated team at the Scotties since 1985, and also set records for team percentage (90 percent), skip percentage, vice percentage, and second percentage. (Lead percentage may have improved had they not called so many ‘tick’ shots.)

I was surprised when this team did not clinch the Olympic spot, but after that disappointing Trials run, they seem re-energized and ready to take out their anger on the rest of the world. I don’t know who else can possibly beat them on their home turf.

CHINA
WCT Rank: 46
Skip: Liu Sijia
Third: Jiang Yilun
Second: Wang Rui
Lead: Liu Jinli
Alternate: She Qiutong
Coach: Tan Wiedong

China will not send their No. 1 team Wang Bingyu, presumably giving them a breather after their fifth place finish at Sochi. Instead they’re sending the a team previously skipped by Jiang, now the vice, with Liu Sijia, a former Pacific junior champion, at the helm. Jiang was an alternate on the 2014 Olympics. A bit odd, but this is the team China has assembled.

In terms of world adult experience, this team doesn’t have much outside of some ersatz alternate appearances, but their junior track record is solid. They should be competitive.

CZECH REPUBLIC
WCT Rank: 73
Skip: Anna Kubešková
Third: Tereza Plíšková
Second: Klára Svatoňová
Lead: Veronika Herdová
Alternate: Alžběta Baudyšová
Coach: Karel Kubeška

After a year absent from worlds, the Czechs are back on the scene. It’s the country’s fifth appearance, all since 2007, and their best finish is still 11th. Kubeskova, whose team finished sixth at Euros, is another lefty skip in this field, and how do you not root for those? Maybe this is finally the year they don’t finish last or second-to-last.

DENMARK
WCT Rank: 97
Skip: Madeleine Dupont
Third: Denise Dupont
Second: Christine Svensen
Lead: Lina Knudsen
Alternate: Isabella Clemmensen
Coach: Millard Evans

Hey, I remember them! It’s hard to forget curling sisters. They curled at the 2010 Olympics and also picked up world hardware in 2009 (bronze) and 2007 (silver), but haven’t been seen on the world level since those Vancouver games, which breaks a three-year streak for Lene Nielsen. I don’t think this was Olympic burnout — Dupont’s team simply beat Nielsen for the national title a couple weeks before Sochi. They’ve got a low ranking perhaps due to their lack of world presence but they’re better than that.

GERMANY
WCT Rank: 30
Skip: Imogen Oona Lehmann
Third: Corinna Scholz
Second: Nicole Muskatewitz
Lead: Stella Heiss
Alternate: Claudia Beer
Coach: Holger Hoehne

It’s going to be weird seeing a German team without Andrea Schopp skipping. The 49-year-old has played at 19 world championships dating back to 1985, and was one hit-and-stay shot from making the Olympics, but I guess eventually someone has to take over, right? The Swiss-born Lehmann now takes over this year, with everybody moving up one spot, and suddenly the team has a fresh youthful look, with everyone 24 years and under.

This team has been teetering on the precipice of being relegated in the European rankings, but can this team bring them back?

LATVIA
WCT Rank: 127
Skip: Evita Regža
Third: Dace Regža
Second: Ieva Berzina
Lead: Zaklina Litauniece
Alternate: Iluta Linde
Coach: Ansis Regža

This is the third world appearance for Latvia since 2010, but the second time they qualified on their own merit. However this is the first appearance for Regza, who got here by finishing seventh at the European championship. Their only win against other European teams who qualified was Germany — and it wasn’t even the same German team. Evita and Dace are the only daughter-mother combination at this competition, so that’s pretty awesome. It’s great to see new countries qualify for these, but they’re still a likely 11th or 12th place finish.

RUSSIA
WCT Rank: 8
Skip: Anna Sidorova
Third: Margarita Fomina
Second: Alexandra Saitova
Lead: Ekaterina Galkina
Alternate: Nkeiruka Ezekh
Coach: Thomas Lips

They don’t get a break either, huh? The Russian team may captivated the world (well, Brazil at least), but they didn’t show it in the standings — just 3-6, which has to be considered underdelivering. But they were impressive in many games and should their youthful endurance hold up, should be among the playoff contenders.

SCOTLAND
WCT Rank: 93
Skip: Kerry Barr
Third: Rachael Simms
Second: Rhiann Macleod
Lead: Barbara McPake
Alternate: Hannah Fleming
Coach: Keith MacLennan

There was a bit of an uproar when they scheduled the Scottish championship to coincide with the Olympics, meaning Eve Muirhead couldn’t defend her world title. But the word on the street was the country wanted her to focus on Sochi and not get too stretched thin. She didn’t mince worlds about her displeasure, but this gave a few other WCT top 100 teams a chance to compete. Barr’s team, who went 7-5 in the Scottish round robin, pulled a medium-grade upset in the Scottish championship over 11-1 Hannah Fleming’s team to get here.

The is the first appearance for Barr, a former world junior champion in 2008, as skip. She tagged on as an alternate that year. Simms and Macleod previously curled with Muirhead teams at worlds in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

If curling is going to escalate big time in Great Britain, having another team on the world circuit like this can only help. I’d peg them to finish somewhere in the middle to top-middle.

SOUTH KOREA
WCT Rank: 33
Skip: Jisun Kim
Third: Un Chi Gim
Second: Mi Sung Shin
Lead: Seulbee Lee
Alternate: Min Ji Um
Coach: Min Suk Choi

Their first Olympic experience went about as planned; 3-6 and they held their own against most teams. They beat Russia and almost knocked off Great Britain. It wasn’t too long ago that they reached the playoffs in surprising fashion two years ago, even beating Canada to reach the semifinal game. If they can limit the steals against them, they’re tactically sound enough to return to the playoffs.

SWEDEN
WCT Rank: 6
Fourth: Maria Prytz
Third: Christina Bertrup
Second: Maria Wennerströem
Skip: Margaretha Sigfridsson
Alternate: Sara McManus
Coach: Fredrik Hallströem

I’m a bit surprised they’re trucking along after a silver medal to play in worlds, and I wonder if any fatigue factor is going to bog them down. Why are they here? Because they’re curlers, dammit, and they want gold. Their past three world competitions — two worlds, one Olympics — were second-place finishes. They’re tired of silver. If they’re not burned out from world class nail-biters, they’re a huge favorite to return to the title game.

SWITZERLAND
WCT Rank: 18
Skip: Binia Feltscher
Third: Irene Schori
Second: Franziska Kaufmann
Lead: Christine Urech
Alternate: Carole Howald
Coach: Gaudenz Beeli

Mirjam Ott’s fourth-place team didn’t partake in their national championship, leaving it up for grabs among a handful of capable teams. Swiss curling has some depth, and Team Feltscher 3-seed out of their six-team round robin won it to bring her back to the worlds for the first time since 2010, when Olympic fourth-place team Ott again sat out for worlds. HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF.

But this team is much improved from four years ago and they’ve done rather well on the cashspiel tour. Feltscher won a silver medal in Torino with Ott as her vice, and at age 35, who knows how many more chances she’ll get to medal on the world stage.

UNITED STATES
WCT Rank: 32
Skip: Allison Pottinger
Third: Nicole Joraanstad
Second: Natalie Nicholson
Lead: Tabitha Peterson
Alternate: Tara Peterson
Coach: Derek Brown

As we discussed earlier, Pottinger’s team accrued enough Order of Merit points to be the USA’s representative; they lost to Nina Spatola in the USA championship game, but they were the 2012 champions and did okay; Pottinger was also on the 2003 world champion team with Deb McCormick and the first three players on this team are former Olympians.

In a regular curling year I’d say they’re an outside contender, but in a somewhat depleted field their playoff chances increase; however, this is an older team (24-year-old Tabitha Peterson is the only one under 33) and those usually have trouble maintaining endurance during these long tournaments.

PREDICTED FINISH:

Canada 10-1
Sweden 8-3
Russia 7-4
China 7-4
Switzerland 6-5
Korea 6-5
USA 6-5
Scotland 5-6
Germany 4-7
Denmark 4-7
Czech Republic 2-9
Latvia 1-10

1-2: Canada d. Sweden
3-4: Russia d. China
Semi: Russia d. Sweden
Bronze: Sweden d. China
Gold: Canada d. Russia

It really feels like Canada and everyone else. They can’t run the table again. Nobody’s that good. They will lose a game somewhere. The intrigue will be who it’s against. Watch it be Latvia.

March92014

Fenson and Spatola Are Our Champions*

Sometimes it comes down to a couple shots, or even a couple inches. Maybe even a little luck doesn’t hurt. Pete Fenson’s team, who has won more championships in recent years than anyone, needed that luck after an odd 3-3 start, including an extra-end loss to his brother Eric. But they won their last three round robin games to sneak into the 3-4 game, topped defending champion Brady Clark, won the semifinal game against Heath McCormick in an extra end steal when McCormick’s four-foot draw went heavy, then executed a practically prefect match against Craig Brown, 9-3 after seven ends.

I would have liked to see Brown win, since he hasn’t been to worlds in six years, and that Olympic trip seemed to reinvigorate him. But his skip magic finally ran out as Fenson’s teammates, second Joe Polo and third Shawn Rojeski, curled 97 and 100 percent, respectively, and that just made it tough for Brown all game.

On the women’s side, former national champion Allison Pottinger fell to Nina Spatola’s team 5-4, giving Spatola her first title as a skip (she was Erika Brown’s third when they won in 2010). Their team had played lights out practically all week (way better than I had imagined) and met one of the goals I had hoped when watching this week: discover new teams that could be 2018 Olympic candidates, or at least world contenders.

This will have to wait, because there is a new world championship qualification system in place this year. The old system was: win US nationals, go to worlds. Now the winning team must accrue the most points on the World Curling Tour, including the national championship, and the best team in the US is the US representative.

Allison Pottinger 38.86
Courtney George 13.86
Nina Spatola 5.875
Cassie Potter 5.675

Based on the strength of world competition, the following point values were up for grabs at US women’s nationals:

1st: 45 (Spatola)
2nd: 35 (Pottinger)
3rd: 30 (Potter)
4th: 20 (George)

So by virtue of their season plus finishing in the top three of the nationals, Team Pottinger is still going to worlds later this month in Saint John, New Brunswick. By contrast, Fenson collected enough points with this national title to go to worlds next month in Beijing. Craig Brown would have gone with a win too, so it felt like a true national title.

Feelings are mixed on this. The USA is doing this to ensure a team doesn’t “get hot,” go to worlds and collapse. They want teams to put in the travel and time and compete against world-level competition before becoming the USA representative. I think this happened because last year Brady Clark, who wasn’t one of the “funded” teams, did exactly that and didn’t have a terrific showing at 2013 worlds, although they are now one of the teams they fund. That is now the incentive for winning nationals: congratulations, now you’re on the radar.

For what it’s worth, two other women’s teams stood out beyond Spatola: Alex Carlson, who lost in the tiebreaker, and Sarah Anderson, a teenager who went 4-5. We’ll just have to see how they all develop in the coming years, because this is the system we’ve (they’ve) decided on.

More to come on this year’s world championship fields.

March62014

USA Curling Nationals Playoffs Preview

If we’re calling this the CURLED SERIES, then I guess this is the LCS? Here’s the bracket:

#1 Craig Brown 7-2 vs. #2 Heath McCormick 7-2 - Friday, 12:00 p.m.
#3 Pete Fenson 6-3 vs. #4 Brady Clark 6-3 - Friday, 12:00 p.m.

Semifinal: 1/2 loser vs. 3/4 winner - Friday, 8:00 p.m.

Championship: 1/2 winner vs. Semifinal winner - Saturday, 3 p.m.

If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a “page playoff format,” where the 1 and 2 seeds get the perk of a double-elimination safety net. Kinda neat and it does encourage necessary games to win through the entire week.

You will notice that John Shuster’s team is not in here. Alas, they did not qualify, finishing at 5-4. losing to Brown in the final game, which would’ve forced a super-neat four-way tiebreaker for three playoff spots. Shuster’s team, including himself, played pretty well all week - they were second in overall curling percentage and no player worse than fourth in their own positional rankings. They just gave up a couple too many big ends, including a 6-ender to Eric Fenson and a 4-ender in the Tyler George loss. George’s team also struggled all week, finishing at 4-5, and no tiebreakers were needed. So Shuster is eliminated from world consideration this year.

So we will have a repeat national champion, as the skips have a combined nine national titles:

Fenson: 2003, 2005-06, 2010-11 (also 1993-94 as vice for Scott Baird)
Brown: 2000, 2008
McCormick: 2012
Clark: 2013

So the skip experience is not an issue, although Brown and McCormick previously won with different teams. McCormick hasn’t been playing with his new team of Chris Plys, Rich Ruohonen and Colin Hufman for not even a couple months, while the core of Brown’s team has been together for a few years. Maybe being an Olympic alternate and getting in a game re-energized him, but for whatever reason Brown is playing much better than normal. For those reasons, coupled with the fact that Brown beat McCormick head-to-head earlier this week, I’d give the edge to them in the 1-2 game.

For the 3-4 game, we’ve got the venerable pizza man (Fenson) against the defending champion, and many-time mixed US champion (Clark). The key here’s going to be the second-third matchups. If Fenson second Joe Polo is making his shots (and at 89 percent, tops in the field, he should be) then it’ll be up to Clark’s vice Sean Beighton to counter and apply some pressure. The fact that Fenson’s team is executing a little better, coupled with the fact that Clark’s team has always been a bit hot/cold, makes me think Fenson has a greater chance of winning her.

Obviously anything could happen and no permutation would surprise me, but I’m guessing the playoffs play out something like this:

1-2: Brown d. McCormick
3-4: Fenson d. Clark
Semi: Fenson d. McCormick
Championship: Brown d. Fenson

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