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.
- Heath McCormick – Idle. (PW: 1)
- Craig Brown – Qualified for playoffs at the US Open. (PW: 2)
- John Shuster – Idle. (PW: 3)
- Brady Clark – A-qualifier at the US Open, win over #5 Todd Birr. (PW: 4)
- Todd Birr – B-qualifier at the US Open. (PW: 5)
- Stephen Dropkin – Idle. (PW: 6)
- Nina Roth – Finalist at the US Open, wins over #4 Jamie Sinclair, #5 Jessica Schultz, and #6 Cristin Clark. (PW: 1)
- Cory Christensen – B-qualifier at the US Open, win over #4 Jamie Sinclair. (PW: 4)
- Cassie Potter – Missed playoffs at the US Open, win over #4 Jamie Sinclair. (PW: 3)
- Jamie Sinclair – Missed playoffs at the US Open. (PW: 2)
- Jessica Schultz – Missed playoffs at the US Open. (PW: 5)
- 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.