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.

I Am Busted

The last week has seen my emotions spiral out of control and I am truly afraid that I might never return to a normal range of feelings. I had a full-blown depressive episode in public on Friday evening, a second one last night at home, alongside what I would call a “numb” episode on Sunday (imagine talking to a brick wall, where your words aren’t heard and there is no emotional response to them) and a minor panic attack on Monday morning. For all the positives that are occurring for me cognitively and the hurdles I’m clearing to return to a productive existence (getting into individual therapy, getting back to work, my curling blog), they are being outweighed for me by the roller coaster going on in my spirit and soul. The depression and anxiety that are replacing the anger and mental churn/rumination scare me, because they debilitate me rather than motivate me or spur me forward. I feel as though these episodes (starting with the two at the beginning of November that put me into the hospital) have changed my brain chemistry so that future ones come on quicker and with less “stress” and I am less capable to respond to them. Is this possible? I’ll start one-on-one therapy at the end of January (earliest appointment I could get with someone who specializes in Cluster B personality disorders) and have an appointment in two weeks to see if I should/wish to start medication. If I happen to see you over the holidays, and I don’t seem right, know that you’re correct, that I am not right at the present time. I may get back to “right” at some point, I may not. Love me, care about me, and help me to see the light at the end of the tunnel, the repaired Scott instead of the one sitting broken in the shop.

US Curling Power Rankings – December 20, 2016

Team Heath McCormick continue their domination of the American bonspiel circuit with a third title in three US-based World Curling Tour events, winning the Curl Mesabi Classic this past weekend. On the women’s side, former Olympian Cassie Potter’s rink clawed their way to the final in Eveleth following a year-to-date best 4-1 round-robin record. Elsewhere on the planet, Team Craig Brown came fourth at the Qinghai (China) International while Nina Roth’s foursome finished third in the women’s event. The results of this week’s action brings a shuffling to both the men’s and women’s rankings as we head into the holidays.

Men

  1. Heath McCormick – Champion at the Curl Mesabi Classic; beat #3 John Shuster in the final. (PW: 1)
  2. Craig Brown – Fourth place at the Qinghai International. (PW: 2)
  3. John Shuster – Finalist at Curl Mesabi. (PW: 5)
  4. Brady Clark – Made the round of 12 at Curl Mesabi; beat #6 Stephen Dropkin in round-robin play. (PW:3)
  5. Todd Birr – Made the round of 12 at Curl Mesabi; beat #4 Brady Clark and #6 Stephen Dropkin in round-robin play. (PW: 6)
  6. Stephen Dropkin – Missed playoffs at Curl Mesabi. (PW: 4)

Women

  1. Nina Roth – Third place at the Qinghai International. (PW: 2)
  2. Jamie Sinclair – Made playoffs at Curl Mesabi; beat #5 Jessica Schultz in round-robin play. (PW: 1)
  3. Cassie Potter – Finalist at Curl Mesabi; beat #2 Jamie Sinclair and #5 Jessica Schultz in round-robin play; beat Sinclair in the quarterfinals and #4 Cory Christensen in the semifinals. (PW: 5)
  4. Cory Christensen – Semifinalist at Curl Mesabi; beat #6 Cristin Clark in round-robin play. (PW: 3)
  5. Jessica Schultz – Missed playoffs at Curl Mesabi (PW: 4)
  6. Cristin Clark – Missed playoffs at Curl Mesabi (PW: 6)

A wrap-up of the first half of the 2016-2017 season will be posted later this week, so keep an eye out for it.

US Curling Power Rankings – December 13, 2016

A light schedule since the Duluth Cash Spiel results in little movement in the power rankings, with Heath McCormick and Jamie Sinclair maintaining their #1 positions. No women’s team has played on tour since Duluth, so their rankings remain the same from two weeks ago, while the men’s poll sees Stephen Dropkin move up following another playoff qualification in Manitoba.

Men

  1. Heath McCormick – Idle.
  2. Craig Brown – Idle.
  3. Brady Clark – Idle.
  4. Stephen Dropkin – B-qualifier at the Thistle Integrity Stakes (third playoff appearance in four events) (PW: 6)
  5. John Shuster – 0-4 at the Boost National, missed playoffs (PW: 4)
  6. Todd Birr – Idle. (PW: 5)

Women

  1. Jamie Sinclair – Idle.
  2. Nina Roth – Idle.
  3. Cory Christensen – Idle.
  4. Jessica Schultz – Idle.
  5. Cassie Potter – Idle.
  6. Cristin Clark – Idle.

 

This week will see all the listed teams except for Craig Brown and Nina Roth playing in the Curl Mesabi Classic in Eveleth, MN (Brown and Roth are representing the US in the Qinghai International in China, with both posting 2-1 records in the event as of this post). With Curl Mesabi being the final event before automatic berths to the USA Nationals are allocated (top five men’s rinks and top four women’s rinks qualify directly), a jostle for points this weekend will make for some fierce action amongst our ranked teams. Next week, we will do a first-half review and look for a spotlight piece on Tom Howell, lead for Team McCormick, to appear in a future edition of the rankings. Also, congratulations to Alex Leichter on being named to Team USA for the 2017 Winter University Games in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

US Curling Power Rankings – November 29, 2016

Heath McCormick and Nina Roth came out on top at the Duluth Cash Spiel this past weekend in the second big showdown amongst US teams on this year’s World Curling Tour schedule. When the dust settled, there was some shuffling in the rankings, but not as much as one might expect.

Men

  1. Heath McCormick – Champion at Duluth; third title of the season (40-16 overall record); beat #5 Todd Birr in a B-final, #4 John Shuster in the playoff final.
  2. Craig Brown – Semifinalist in Duluth; 4-3 for the week;  beat #3 Brady Clark in a quarterfinal.
  3. Brady Clark – B-qualifier in Duluth; beat #5 Todd Birr in A-bracket play. (PW:4)
  4. John Shuster – Finalist in Duluth (first trip past quarters this season); beat #2 Craig Brown in a semifinal. (PW:5)
  5. Todd Birr – Made B-final and C-final in Duluth;  beat #2 Craig Brown in B-bracket play. (PW:3)
  6. Stephen Dropkin – A-qualifier in Duluth (second playoff appearance in three events); beat #2 Craig Brown and #3 Brady Clark in A-bracket play. (PW:NR)

Women

  1. Jamie Sinclair – Finalist in Duluth; beat #4 Jessica Schultz in pool play.
  2. Nina Roth – Champion in Duluth; beat #5 Cassie Potter and #6 Cristin Clark in pool play, #4 Cory Christensen in a semifinal, #1 Jamie Sinclair in the final.(PW:3)
  3. Cory Christensen – Semifinalist in Duluth; beat #6 Cristin Clark, #5 Cassie Potter, and #2 Nina Roth in pool play. (PW:4)
  4. Jessica Schultz – Missed playoffs in Duluth. (PW:2)
  5. Cassie Potter – Missed playoffs in Duluth; beat #6 Cristin Clark in pool play.
  6. Cristin Clark – Missed playoffs in Duluth.

 

As of posting time, it looks to be a light week on the docket for the US teams. John Shuster and Nina Roth will be representing the US in NBC Sports Network’s “Curling Night in America” series, to be taped Thursday-Saturday in Duluth, while Stephen Dropkin will be playing in the Thistle Integrity Stakes in Winnipeg, MB. With just a couple of weeks remaining until automatic berths to the USA National Championships are announced, the fight will be fierce for those spots and the ability to avoid the Challenge Rounds in January.

A Second Go For The Bruce

On Tuesday, Bruce Arena was installed as manager of the US Men’s National Team following the dismissal of Jurgen Klinsmann the previous day. Let’s be clear, these moves are not made without the US Soccer Federation first prioritizing qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup above EVERYTHING ELSE in the national team program and then seeing said goal being severely threatened by the team’s results in its first matches of the Hex (a 2-1 home loss to Mexico followed by a 4-0 drubbing in Costa Rica). For those of you who believe Arena will magically move the Yanks into a qualifying spot after the matches in March, news for you: not gonna happen. For those who see this change of course as a step backwards, news for you: it’s not nearly the disaster you are wishing it to be. For the soccer writers singing the praises of Jesse Marsch, Tab Ramos, and Oscar Pareja as Il Bruce’s successor, news for you: they lack the goods right now. Allow me to break this down logically for you.

The rest of the Hex will be a slough, but there is light at the end. The US sits on zero points after two matches, with 24 points available the rest of the way. A reasonable pathway for the US to qualify is to go 5-1-2 over the last eight matches, which is 17 points and would match their 2001 qualifying total, where they punched their ticket to the 2002 World Cup with a game to spare. Those 17 points are most likely gotten this way: win the remaining home matches (12 points); draw at Panama and Honduras (2 points); win at Trinidad and Tobago on the last day (3 points). Could they do better than that (for instance, a win at either Panama or Honduras or a draw at Mexico, which have been achieved in previous qualifying cycles)? Sure, but let’s not bank the life savings on it. Patience is vital, as this accumulation of points would put the US at four points after four matches, seven points after six, eleven points after eight, and requires winning the last two matches to reach 17.

This is a stop-gap, not a turning-back. Bringing in Arena to rescue the qualifying campaign is not an admission that the path USSF took five years ago to hire Klinsmann was bad or that the progress made under him will cease. Klinsmann was brought in at a time where the current system had reached its zenith with the tools at its disposal, and a fresh perspective was necessary in the evolution of the national team program. Much as Klinsmann’s tenure was a step on the evolutionary path, Arena’s will be as well. We will see a re-calibration of the program in the short term to insert things that have been lacking recently (such as spirit and collective will that teams without elite-level weapons rely upon to slug it out with more talented sides, along with mental acumen), all with an eye to get this team to Russia by whatever means necessary. Following the World Cup, that evolution can progress on a path best-suited for the times and be led by a manager who fits the direction the Fed wishes to go.

Different times call for different visions. National team programs evolve over time, and one point in the path requires different tools and skills than another one. Klinsmann’s vision as an outsider was necessary to “move the goalposts” of where the US existed in the soccer world (prior to him, king of CONCACAF was the pinnacle and the direction was geared to that end) and how we would go about moving closer to the top end of that world. I held after the 2014 World Cup that the US needed to take its next step in that path, and the person to lead it would need two specific qualifications: significant US National Team playing experience and professional managerial experience. Those three names mentioned in the opening (Marsch, Ramos, and Pareja) don’t meet that criteria in full (Marsch was not a critical piece of the USNT player pool, Pareja didn’t play for the US National Team, and Ramos hasn’t spent time leading a professional soccer team). Can they make up for that in some way? Sure, but in my opinion it would require being part of Arena’s team in this interim period with a succession plan in place to take over following Russia 2018. Barring that, we should consider others who meet both criteria and wouldn’t require such an internship. The names at the top of my list in that regard are Dominic Kinnear and Peter Vermes. Both have won multiple trophies in their coaching careers, both earned more than 50 caps for the US National Team in their playing careers, but I would place Kinnear ahead of Vermes based on the tactical flexibility he has exhibited during his tenure in Houston and San Jose, a trait that is key when dealing with an ever-changing player pool.

That’s my take. What’s yours?