National championships in curling, as in most sports, come and go with regularity. Once every 12 months, those rock throwers with the competitive itch are going to enjoy the opportunity to avail themselves to some sort of playdowns, looking to carve a path to Canadians.
Given that backdrop, any kind of “Games” setting, be it of the Olympic variety or otherwise, will always carry an extra special meaning. Certainly that is the case for the Canada Winter Games, where one has to hope that the overall team calendar slides in nicely with the quadrennial cycle, allowing young curling rinks their best possible shot at CWGs.
That was clearly the case for the local quartet of Megan Smith, Kira Brunton, Mikeala Cheslock and Emma Johnson, the Sudbury Curling Club reps who claimed gold while donning the Ontario team colours back in 2015 in Prince George, B.C.
For the second straight time, not only will the Ontario women’s team competing at the Canada Games hail from Northern Ontario, but it will also be comprised entirely of Sudburians. The Idylwylde Golf and Country Club rink of Bella Croisier, Jamie Smith, Piper Croisier and Lauren Rajala (coach Shawn Croisier) emerged from a field of eight teams last weekend in Sault Ste. Marie, looking to build on an impressive resume that already included a trip to U18 nationals in New Brunswick.
“I think we were aware that there were a lot of other good teams there (in SSM), and that regardless of who won, there was going to be a really good representative from Ontario,” said Jamie Smith, who throws vice and now follows in the footsteps of her older sister (Megan) in earning a coveted berth at the Canada Winter Games.
“I think that’s why you didn’t see anyone go 7-0 through the round robin. It was so tight. We could win or lose any game.”
Early on, however, visions of an undefeated run certainly might have danced through the heads of local supporters. Team Croisier looked absolutely dominant in bolting their way to a 4-0 start with victories over Mahra Harris of Newmarket (10-1), Jessica Guilbault of Oshawa (8-1), Jessica Byers of Haliburton (8-2) and Rachel Steele of Port Perry (8-2).
Despite putting themselves in great position to secure one of four semifinal spots up for grabs, the locals were about to encounter their first bout with adversity. The Idylwylde foursome dropped a 3-2 decision to Faith Hebert of Thunder Bay, edged Emily Deschenes of Manotick 8-7 by scoring two in the eighth and final end, and then lost 5-4 to Paige Brown of Navan in a contest that featured a rare blanked extra end.
“A really important thing for us is to always really support each other, 100 per cent, no matter what happens,” noted Smith. “Just making sure that we are always communicating with each other, always talking with one another.”
After enjoying an incredibly successful season in their inaugural campaign with this version of Team Croisier, the local teens knew full well that things tend to even themselves out, at least a little, over time.
“We haven’t had as much success as we had at the beginning of last year,” said Smith. “But I think we were also coming off a really big season and it took some time to get back into things. For this team, specifically, I think it’s most important that we just have confidence and that we trust that it will get better.”
It really could not get a whole lot better than the playoff round the girls experienced in the Sault, stopping the Deschenes rink 7-3 in the semifinals and then jumping out to a 5-1 lead after three ends in the final against Team Vivier (Paige Brown at skip) and holding on for a 7-6 win in the gold-medal encounter.
“Scoreboard management was really key, just making sure we were controlling the right ends,” said skip Bella Croisier. “Coming home tied is not a bad situation for us. We’re going to win more of those games than we lose.”
That confidence factor is but one area where Croisier feels that she is, on a personal level, much further ahead than she was in September of 2017.
“I think I am a better skip, just because I have way more experience than I did at this point last year,” said the 17-year-old Grade 12 student at Marymount Academy.
“Going to nationals, I learned so much from there. Competing at Scotties (provincials) last year, I learned rock precision. That was the big thing.” And that’s a lesson that is certainly not lost on the entire team lineup. “Playing that high level calibre of teams, at U21s, was super helpful,” noted second Piper Croisier.
“We got to really learn about rock placement and tolerance, the way to miss. Inches matter, angles matter. Tolerance is basically where your shot can be. So on a draw, for instance, it’s anywhere from eight foot to four foot. It’s the best way to miss.”
Having moved from second to lead this year, 16-year-old Lauren Rajala can appreciate those finer nuances.
“At lead, it’s a little bit easier to find your draw weight than at second,” she said. “At second, you’re throwing a bunch of hits, and then, at some point, you have to tone it down and throw that draw right when it’s important.”
Despite falling in the U21 NOCA final to Kira Brunton, Rajala suggested her team regrouped quickly when it came to hitting the ice just a week later, with a trip to Alberta on the line.
“It was disappointing, yes, but we had to focus on what we really wanted, and that was CWGs,” she said. “It was all about putting it behind us and focusing on what’s ahead. That really helped.”
As for the Games, which will host women’s curling in week two of the competition, towards the end of February, Rajala captures the excitement of the entire team, as she looks forward to what amounts to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “Experiencing the Games, soaking it all in, is what’s important to me,” admitted the Grade 11 student at Lasalle Secondary.
“I definitely think it’s going to be different, wearing the opening ceremonies gear and being with other people playing different sports than you.”
Randy in the Rings runs weekly during the curling season.