US Curling Power Rankings – March 2, 2017

With USA Nationals in the rear-view mirror, we move onto the last portion of the 2016-2017 curling season. As mentioned last week, there is a bit of re-arranging in the rankings based on the results in Everett. Here we go:

Men

  1. John Shuster – Champion at USA Nationals, going 11-0 for the week. (PW: 3)
  2. Todd Birr – Finalist at USA Nationals; 6-3 in round-robin, then won the Page 3/4 game over Craig Brown and semifinal over Brady Clark. (PW: 4)
  3. Brady Clark – Semifinalist at USA Nationals, going 7-2 in round-robin to secure a spot in the Page 1/2 game. (PW: 5)
  4. Heath McCormick – Missed playoffs at USA Nationals. (PW: 1)
  5. Craig Brown – Made playoffs at USA Nationals. (PW: 2)
  6. Pete Fenson – Made tiebreaker at USA Nationals. (PW: 6)

Women

  1. Jamie Sinclair – Champion at USA Nationals, finishing 7-1 for the event. (PW: 3)
  2. Nina Roth – Finalist at USA Nationals; 5-2 in round-robin, won semifinal over Cassie Potter. (PW: 1)
  3. Cassie Potter – Semifinalist at USA Nationals; 5-2 in round-robin. (PW: 4)
  4. Cory Christensen – Missed playoffs at USA Nationals. (PW: 2)
  5. Jessica Schultz – Missed playoffs at USA Nationals. (PW: 6)

 

The World Curling Tour schedule is more or less completed, with only a couple of Grand Slam events and the European Masters left. Therefore, unless there is a major disparity in performance between Sinclair and Roth at the Champions Cup and the Women’s Worlds, these will be the final ranking positions for the season.

USA Nationals Review

The teams led by John Shuster and Jamie Sinclair were crowned USA Curling National champions on Saturday in Everett, WA, with Shuster defeating Todd Birr in the men’s final and Sinclair beating Nina Roth for the women’s title. My halftime report gave some insight as to what the trends looked like as round-robin was heading for the finish line, but there were still surprises that came from the final draws prior to the playoffs. Here is my wrap-up of the event.

HITS

  • Shuster and Potter.  I called these two teams the ones to watch in my preview of USA Nationals and neither one disappointed. Shuster ran through the field, posting a 9-0 round-robin record, then proceeded to dispatch defending national champion Brady Clark in the Page 1/2 game and Birr in the final to complete a perfect week. Team Potter got off to a 5-0 start and made the playoffs despite playing their last two matches short-handed due to illness.
  • BAD LOSSES. I stressed this concept in both the preview and the halftime update, and those pesky things upended the field. Craig Brown, despite beating Clark and incoming year-to-date points leader Heath McCormick, ended up in a tiebreaker with Pete Fenson because of losses to Hunter Clawson and Alex Leichter. Cory Christensen missed the playoffs altogether after losing her last two round-robin matches to bottom-half teams (this after defeating both Sinclair and Roth in earlier draws). Even though they hadn’t defeated another top-half team, McCormick was in the mix to make a tiebreaker until his loss in Draw 8 to Fenson.

CLOSE MISS

  • Brown and Christensen. I had declared both of these teams as my second choices should the favorites (McCormick and Roth) not end up winning the event, and both teams started round-robin at 4-1. Brown’s three-game skid that included the loss to Leichter and Christensen’s losses to Cora Farrell and Jessica Schultz ended up taking the shine off those predictions.

FLASHES

  • McCormick. I did not adequately factor in their gradual slide that started at the Canadian Open in the preview and continued to believe that they could “turn the corner” after their 1-3 start because the schedule was in their favor. In the end, the hole dug by the Draw 1 loss to Birr and subsequent losses to Shuster and Brown proved too big to climb out of even with a last half of round-robin that could have produced five straight wins (they went 3-2).
  • SINCLAIR! I completely missed on how this team would perform at Nationals, even ignoring reasonable opinions from other curling analysts (yes, I mean you, @suss2hyphens and your insistence that the Continental Cup did them a world of good) to justify my pre-conception that their inconsistency and lack of a “next level” result during the tour season (manifested by their losing to Roth, Christensen, and Potter at the US Open to miss the playoffs) would see them not make the podium in Everett. In the halftime report, I even poo-pooed their 3-0 start to a favorable schedule and had nearly started with their eulogy following the loss to Christensen in Draw 4. It was only after they beat Roth in Draw 5 that I began to give them credit, but still felt like they would lose to Potter in Draw 6 and possible stub their toe at the end to miss the playoffs. Jamie, Alex, Vicky, and Monica, I am very sorry for doubting your ability and hope you will not burn this column in effigy.

Shuster and Roth will be heading off to Worlds in the next few weeks as Team USA to attempt to secure enough placement points to get the US berths in the 2018 Winter Olympics. On the tour, Sinclair will be heading to the Humptys Champions Cup along with Shuster as a result of their wins. A new rankings will come out next week with some expected movement up and down the chart.

 

USA Nationals Halftime Review

With the USA Curling Nationals reaching the halfway point of round-robin play, some stories have come to the fore. On the men’s side, the 1-3 start by Year-To-Date points leader Heath McCormick has put the team’s playoff chances in peril. Meanwhile, Team John Shuster is 4-0 and showing that their improvement over the past three months is no fluke. For the women, the 3-0 start by Cassie Potter has given her team a leg up towards the playoffs while Jamie Sinclair is also at 3-0 ahead of matches against the other Team USA rinks today.

Let’s look back at the three things I mentioned in my Nationals preview on how to win the title and see how the teams are doing:

  • Form. Shuster and Potter were on good form heading into Everett and that doesn’t seem to be fading. On the other hand, McCormick’s team has slipped a little since the start of the year, beginning with a three-and-out at the Canadian Open and continuing with a quarterfinal appearance at the Golden Wrench in Phoenix. Something seems to be off and hopefully they can right the ship today with wins against a pair of down-table teams.
  • Luck. Luck on the ice is well and good, but the luck of the schedule seems to be playing itself out. Sinclair’s 3-0 has come against the bottom half of the table and now she will go on a gauntlet of matches today and tomorrow against Cory Christensen, Nina Roth, and Potter. Potter, on the other hand, has gotten over a pair of hurdles in her first three matches (a top-three win and a nervy match-up against Jessica Schultz in the opening draw) and has a less-daunting pair of fixtures today before closing against Sinclair and Roth. Christensen’s match with Sinclair wraps up her battles with the top half in the round-robin and she closes with three matches against teams in the bottom half of the standings. McCormick has four of his last five matches against teams with a collective 5-11 record (2-7 against the foursome of Shuster, Craig Brown, Brady Clark, and Todd Birr), while Brown will close the round-robin against a pair of teams that are both 1-3 thus far and Shuster finishes off with Clark and Birr (both 3-1).
  • NO BAD LOSSES. On the women’s side, there hasn’t been a bad loss to date (8-0 in top-half/bottom-half match-ups), and only two on the men’s side (Pete Fenson over Birr and Hunter Clawson over Brown) in 12 matches. Those two will surely tighten the field as the top half begins playing one another in round-robin, but there is no cause for alarm heading into today’s games.

So who makes the playoffs? For the men, it will be Shuster, Brown, McCormick (they’ll get the ship righted), and the winner of Clark and Birr. The women’s playoff field will be Christensen, Roth, and Potter. Tune into all the action at the USA Nationals site.

USA Nationals Preview

The USA Nationals begins on Saturday in Everett, WA, and for eighteen teams (ten men’s and eight women’s), the opportunity to be declared the top curling rink in the United States and the possibility of representing the US at the World Curling Championships are on the line. Heath McCormick and Nina Roth are currently ranked #1 both on the World Curling Tour Order of Merit year-to-date standing and in the most recent US Curling Power Rankings and have to be considered slight favorites to leave the Pacific Northwest next Saturday with national titles, berths to the World Championships, and qualification for the Humptys Champions Cup.

Both the men and women will play a full round-robin (nine games for the men, seven for the women), followed by playoffs for the top four men’s teams and top three women’s teams. So how does a team go about winning this event? I can point to three key elements that will be essential for a team to finish at the top of the podium.

  • Form. A team needs to be peaking heading into the event as well as within the competition. Get off to a slow start and you might not have enough games left to climb into a playoff position. Also, a hot start that isn’t sustained can result in running out of gas by the end of the round-robin.
  • Luck. Yes, you need to be a little lucky, both on-the-ice and with the schedule makers. Not every game will go perfectly (caused either by a tough opponent or less-than-stellar shooting), and teams that want to win nationals need to grind through a bad game to get results. As for the schedule, a front-loaded one can put one behind the eight-ball on qualification if the wins don’t come, whereas a back-loaded one might give a team a false sense of security heading into the final matches of the round-robin.
  • NO BAD LOSSES. Teams need to take care of business against opponents they expect to beat if they wish to be around for the playoffs. A top team that stumbles against one down the table brings more of the pack into play for tie-breakers and/or playoff positions, while a team around the bubble who gets upended can miss them altogether.

With that said, how do I expect things to shake out? I will give you three teams that CAN win or be in the mix when the games finish (a favorite, an “if not” team, and one to watch out for).

Favorites: Heath McCormick and Nina Roth. McCormick has won four titles on the World Curling Tour this season along with compiling an 18-3 record against other US rinks. Roth has one title and two finalist appearances on the season and her extra competition schedule (Curling Night in America, the Americas Challenge) has kept the team on a roll during this down portion of the season.

If Nots (meaning who wins if not the favorites): Craig Brown and Cory Christensen. Brown has had a respectable season (eight playoff appearances, 18-6 record vs. US rinks) and could snag this title from McCormick if they meet twice in the playoffs (Page 1/2 and the final). Christensen has been consistent in the US-based events this season (qualified for playoffs in all four, including a title in St. Paul) and has beaten Roth twice in three meetings to date.

Teams to Watch: John Shuster and Cassie Potter. Shuster’s team has rounded into better form over the past two months (final at Duluth, final at Curl Mesabi, playoffs at the Canadian Open) and have the big-game experience to be in the mix when the playoffs arrive. Potter has been relatively consistent in a limited competition schedule and, should she take care of business against the bottom half of the field, could pip Jamie Sinclair for the third playoff spot (currently on a three-game winning streak against Sinclair).

Live streaming and results can be found on the 2017 USA Curling Nationals website.

US Curling Power Rankings – February 9, 2017

After a hiatus brought on by the author’s up-and-down health and a fried laptop, we are back with an updated ranking ahead of this week’s USA Nationals. Results from the Challenge Rounds play a role in some re-shuffling, but most if not all teams have settled into their place in the pecking order. Consider this the final “regular season” poll, with the previous five months taken into account and recent results weighted heavier.

Men

  1. Heath McCormick (PW: 1)
  2. Craig Brown (PW: 2)
  3. John Shuster (PW: 3)
  4. Todd Birr (PW: 5)
  5. Brady Clark (PW: 4)
  6. Pete Fenson (PW: NR)

Women

  1. Nina Roth (PW: 1)
  2. Cory Christensen (PW: 2)
  3. Jamie Sinclair (PW: 4)
  4. Cassie Potter (PW: 3)
  5. Cristin Clark (PW: 6)
  6. Jessica Schultz (PW: 5)

 

Later today, a preview of the USA Nationals will come out, with analysis and predictions (just remember, don’t go to Vegas and spend the rent money on my selections).

US Curling Power Rankings – January 3, 2017

The back half of the 2016-2017 curling season kicks off this week with the Meridian Canadian Open on the World Curling Tour and the USA Nationals Challenge Rounds taking place closer to home. A preview of the challenge rounds, highlights from an interview with Thomas Howell (lead for the top-ranked Heath McCormick rink) as their team embarks on its first Grand Slam of Curling event, and the updated  rankings are on-tap in this week’s edition.

Six women’s teams head to Waupaca, WI this week to play for three berths to the USA Nationals in Everett, WA in February (auto-berths to Nationals were given last month to the teams led by Nina Roth, Jamie Sinclair, Cory Christensen, and Jessica Schultz). 2006 Olympian Cassie Potter and her rink have been relatively consistent this season with middle-of-the-road finishes highlighted by a trip to the finals of the Curl Mesabi Classic in December and is the overwhelming favorite to secure one of the three qualification spots. Beyond them, the fight for the remaining spots is fairly even. Team Cristin Clark from Seattle has the most experience this season on the World Curling Tour and could be considered the best of the rest in this field, but Team Madison Bear from the junior ranks has shown well when competing against the other US teams in a limited WCT schedule. The teams led by Annemarie Dubberstein, Lysa Johnson, and Becca Wood round out the field. One team will qualify from each of the three brackets (A, B, and C), with all starting in A and then moving to B and C should they lose. Action starts on Friday afternoon and continues through the weekend.

Thirteen men’s teams converge on the Four Seasons Curling Club in Blaine, MN to contest for four qualifying places at USA Nationals (auto-berths to Nationals were given to the rinks led by Heath McCormick, Craig Brown, John Shuster, Brady Clark, and Todd Birr). Of the field, Pete Fenson and Stephen Dropkin’s foursomes have played the most WCT events and had the best results to date in them, but with such a disparity in rinks in the challenge round, handicapping potential qualifiers is difficult. Similar to the women, the challenge round will be contested via a triple-knockout format (one qualifier from A, one from B, and two from C). Games start on Thursday evening and run through Sunday morning.

Team Heath McCormick heads to North Battleford, SK this week for the Meridian Canadian Open, the third of four Grand Slam of Curling “majors” on this year’s schedule. McCormick qualified for the event as a result of a massively successful first half of the season, which comprised of four wins in nine events and a year-to-date ranking of 16th. The lead for this team, Thomas Howell, is an economics and business major at Marquette University here in Milwaukee and I had a chance to sit down with him recently to discuss their team’s success, his entry to the sport, and how he juggles elite-level curling and school. Howell came to curling by way of his parents picking up the game after college and rose the ranks to the point where their regional association paired him up with another rink in the region being led by Stephen Dropkin (his brother, Korey, plays second for McCormick). His first taste of national-level competition was the 2009 US Junior Nationals. Howell and Korey Dropkin would pair up to win the 2016 US Junior Nationals and bring home a silver medal from the World Junior Curling Championships last winter. As for how school and curling collide, Tom admits that it is “stupid hard” balancing the two, considering that Marquette doesn’t provide any institutional support for non-NCAA athletes in their midst (apparently, a number of speed skaters aligned with the Pettit National Ice Center are also students at Marquette and have seen similar obstacles). Staying on top of a heavy travel and bonspiel schedule and academic responsibilities has required taking lighter course loads and working closely with professors and his major department on deadlines. Howell said that their team “wanted to expect” that they would have the type of season we’ve seen from them, but that it was truly unexpected just HOW successful they have been, believing that qualifying for the playoffs in their opening event (the Ontario Curling Tour Fall Classic, where they finished second) laid the foundation for the third-place finish in China the following week and the run of wins to follow. He also stressed that they need to be a little more consistent in larger-field events in Western Canada (they hadn’t qualified for the playoffs in any of the three “big” events they had played at the time of the interview), but I argued that they have been consistent even in those events by going relatively deep into the C-bracket in all of them and not having any 3-and-outs to date.

The rankings this week look very similar to those of two weeks ago, as no men’s team got past the quarterfinals at the US Open of Curling and the inconsistency on the women’s side (only two of the six US-ranked teams made the playoffs in Blaine) has allowed Nina Roth to secure a slightly-tighter grip on the #1 spot.

Men

  1. Heath McCormick – Idle. (PW: 1)
  2. Craig Brown – Qualified for playoffs at the US Open. (PW: 2)
  3. John Shuster – Idle. (PW: 3)
  4. Brady Clark – A-qualifier at the US Open, win over #5 Todd Birr. (PW: 4)
  5. Todd Birr – B-qualifier at the US Open. (PW: 5)
  6. Stephen Dropkin – Idle. (PW: 6)

Women

  1. Nina Roth – Finalist at the US Open, wins over #4 Jamie Sinclair, #5 Jessica Schultz, and #6 Cristin Clark. (PW: 1)
  2. Cory Christensen – B-qualifier at the US Open, win over #4 Jamie Sinclair. (PW: 4)
  3. Cassie Potter – Missed playoffs at the US Open, win over  #4 Jamie Sinclair. (PW: 3)
  4. Jamie Sinclair – Missed playoffs at the US Open. (PW: 2)
  5. Jessica Schultz – Missed playoffs at the US Open. (PW: 5)
  6. Cristin Clark – Missed playoffs at the US Open. (PW: 6)

 

Next week, a recap of the challenge rounds and the Canadian Open (Team John Shuster is also in the field) and perhaps new entries to the men’s rankings.

US Curling Power Rankings – First Half Recap

With no curling action this past week, the rankings take a break as well. Instead, we will recap the first half of the 2016-2017 season and the teams that have brought much joy and consternation to the US curling community.

Team Heath McCormick started the season off with a bang, finishing runner-up at the OCT Fall Classic in Oakville (ON) and third at the Harbin International event in China. Their first of four wins thus far came a few weeks later at the St. Paul (MN) Cash Spiel, with more hardware taken home from the Huron ReproGraphics Oil Heritage Classic in Sarnia (ON), the Coors Light Cash Spiel in Duluth (MN), and the Curl Mesabi Classic in Eveleth (MN). At 46-17, they have 12 more wins this season than the #2 US team on tour and 20 more than #3. Up next for the rink is the Canadian Open, their first Grand Slam of Curling event (more next week, along with highlights of my interview with lead Tom Howell).

Team Craig Brown has gone 34-21 so far this season, qualifying for the playoffs six times in nine events, and making the finals at St. Paul in addition to three other semifinal appearances. Their latest result was a fourth-place finish at the Qinghai International event in China two weeks ago. With McCormick not competing at the US Open this week, now is as good a time as any for Brown’s rink to break through with a win and build some additional momentum heading into USA Nationals in February.

Beyond those two, the rest of the US men’s contingent has been a little underwhelming. Outside of Todd Birr, no other team is more than one game over .500 this year, with defending world bronze medalist John Shuster sitting at 26-28 with only three playoff qualifications (the three US-based tour stops) in 10 events and defending US champion Brady Clark at 24-23 and two semifinal appearances from their five playoff qualifications. The five aforementioned teams have qualified for USA Nationals, with the men’s challenge round (four berths available) to be played next week in Blaine, MN at the Four Seasons Curling Club/US Olympic Training Center. Can an up-and-comer such as Stephen Dropkin, Brandon Corbett, or 2017 World University Games representative Alex Leichter put together a solid week to snag a berth at Nationals and then ride that train to a high finish in Everett?

On the women’s side, this season has been a tale of no clearly dominant team. Team Jamie Sinclair sounded the first shot with a semifinal appearance at the OCT Fall Classic and has been the most consistent team so far (six playoff appearances in nine events, most points year-to-date, 30-22 record). Nina Roth‘s foursome has the best winning percentage of the US teams on tour (30-17) and has picked up a first (Duluth), a second (St. Paul), and a third (Qinghai) in their five playoff qualifications. Cory Christensen‘s band of upstarts defended their title in St. Paul in October and has qualified for the playoffs in all three US-based tour stops, but a 20-18 record hampered by three-and-outs in multiple events shows that consistency is an issue. Those three rinks along with Team Jessica Schultz picked up auto-berths to USA Nationals and will avoid the challenge round in Waupaca, WI next week. 2006 Olympian Cassie Potter and her team will be the overwhelming favorites for one of the three berths, but who among the other five teams will find enough form to pick up the other two spots?

This week is the US Open of Curling in Blaine, MN. With the Canadian Open starting immediately afterwards, McCormick and Shuster have opted to skip this event, but the rest of the US men’s and women’s qualifiers are in the field, alongside Qinghai finalist William Lyburn, defending Canadian junior champion Matt Dunstone, former world champions Alina Paetz and Bingyu Wang, and past Scotties Tournament of Hearts representatives Tracy Fleury, Krista McCarville, Sherry Middaugh, and Robyn MacPhee. Action begins Friday at 2pm and runs through Monday afternoon. We’ll recap the event along with publishing the new rankings and preview the US challenge rounds in next week’s edition.