Prologue and Chapter One

A/N: I have completed the manuscript for “Love Out Loud”. The first portion is a prologue which explains some of the history that leads to the opening scene, which is the first day of 2018 Freshman Orientation at Trinity Lutheran University.

*******

On August 11, 2016, the Concordia University-Wisconsin Board of Regents, facing the loss of the school’s accreditation by the Lutheran Federation of Colleges due to a schism of philosophy between itself, the Faculty Senate, and the Student Government Association Executive Board, voted to consolidate its academic offerings with that of Concordia University-Ann Arbor and move all programs to the Michigan campus, to be completed in time for Fall 2018 classes. The Board of Regents also voted to seek out offers from other universities for the Mequon-based campus.

On September 6, 2016, the CUW Faculty Senate voted to enter into an agreement with the faculties at Carthage College and Wisconsin Lutheran College so that students wishing to transfer from Concordia may do so with full credit. Additionally, the Faculty Senate voted to pass on a resolution to the CUW Foundation seeking appropriate financial aid support for students who transfer to one of the two institutions.

During the November 10, 2016 meeting of the Board of Regents, it took up a purchase offer from Carthage College for the campus, which was approved unanimously. Five days later, the Carthage College Board of Trustees took up a motion by its chair, David Strasser, to rename the school Trinity Lutheran University upon its relocation to Mequon in 2018. After significant debate, the renaming was approved by a three-vote margin. The Board also approved a one-year moratorium on student enrollment, to take place for the 2017-2018 academic year. Additionally, the transfer agreement between Carthage, Concordia, and Wisconsin Lutheran was approved.

On July 1, 2018, Carthage College became Trinity Lutheran University in its new home of Mequon, Wisconsin. In a few short weeks, the class of 2022 would arrive on campus. The Thunder’s 24 intercollegiate teams were granted membership into the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference, with Carthage’s membership in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) ending at the conclusion of the 2017-2018 academic year.

The school’s women’s lacrosse team, led by former Carthage coach Lauren Heberlein, would have four transfers from the Kenosha school, two hold-overs from Concordia’s class of 2021, and eighteen freshmen on its roster. The four Carthage transfers (Morgan Brooks, Megan Racicot, Jessica Fisher, and Nicole Babcock) and two former Falcons (Stephanie McNamara and Samantha Mueller) would be counted on to provide leadership for the team in its first season of play.

***********

The first day of campus life for Trinity Lutheran University started bright and early as the Class of 2022 began arriving at 8am to move into their dorms and get acquainted with campus before the school’s opening service for freshmen and athletes at 4pm. Erin Matheson, a women’s lacrosse player coming to TLU from Rockford, MI, was unloading her parents’ minivan when the school’s chaplain, Deacon Marc Schmidt, and his wife Danielle joined them.

Marc: Jim, Val, I see all of you made it here safely. You should have called us if you were going to be in town a day early. We could have gone out to dinner, the five of us.

Jim: We got in about 9:00 last night because I was needed at the museum in the afternoon and couldn’t pass the task off to another curator.

Danielle: How is the bouncing, baby freshman doing today?

Erin: Good as can be. I don’t know anybody here but you and Mr. Slick, but I hear that there will be a LOT of my teammates coming today.

Marc: I think I heard your team has 18 freshmen out of the 24 on the roster. Since athletes get to move in early, I’m guessing all 24 of you will be here by the end of the day. Have you seen your schedule for this evening’s beginning of orientation?

Erin: We have a team meeting that will run from 7-7:30, then “bonding time” from 7:30-10pm. Us athletes are exempted from the hall meeting tonight, but will have to schedule in a time to meet with our hall director before classes start on Monday.

Marc: I need to get back to my office to work on this afternoon’s opening service. Erin, stop by after you get moved in and settled. We’ll do lunch together and I can give you some of the low-down on campus and what I’ve learned in my first month or so up here.

Marc gave Erin a hug, which was reciprocated along with a peck on the cheek. Marc kissed his wife goodbye and waved at Jim and Val before heading over to Luther Hall and returning to work on his first worship service as Trinity Lutheran University’s chaplain.

***

Around 11:30, Erin stopped into Marc’s office in Luther Hall.

Erin: Is the chaplain in?

Marc: For most people, no, but for you, yes. Take a seat.

Erin sat down and looked around Marc’s place of work, taking in the combination of religious and sports artifacts.

Erin: If I hadn’t seen the proof, I wouldn’t believe that you had done all that you have.

Marc: It’s been an interesting life, I can tell you that. From my time at Drake to Ball State and Western Michigan, where Danielle and I met your parents, and onward to Buffalo and building my own soccer club before going into coaching education and getting through my diaconal coursework, everything has helped me get to this point, and I wouldn’t change anything that has happened. Well, maybe one thing. I wish my dad had been able to see me achieve all of this. Then again, if he were still with us, most of this probably wouldn’t have happened.

Erin: Did you think you’d be here a year ago when I decided to apply for admission?

Marc: In reality, no. I didn’t know that the position here would be vacant or that I’d be asked to take it on after being consecrated. Things just fell together the way they were meant to. I get to do what I’ve always wanted, which is campus ministry in a setting where my previous experience in student affairs and athletics can be a help to both the professionals and the students.

Erin: Ready for lunch?

Marc: Just let me get this last sentence written for my homily and then I’ll be set.

Marc finished up and then the two of them walked over to Albrecht for lunch at Luther’s Landing, comprised of six different mini-restaurants in a food court style setting. The pair went to their preferred counters, as Erin got a sandwich and salad from Express Deli and Marc a burger and fries from the Original Burger Company. While getting condiments for his food, Marc ran into someone from his past.

Marc: Danielle?

Danielle Dillon: Marc. Funny seeing you up in this part of the world.

Marc: Yeah. Took a job here about six weeks ago. Still getting my feet under me. I thought you were teaching elementary school.

Danielle: I was, but when Trinity advertised for a full-time assistant coach, I thought “what the heck” and put in my application. Guess the athletic director liked what he saw, as I got hired.

Marc: Congrats. You’ve always had the ability and confidence. Just needed the opportunity to show it.

Danielle: It didn’t hurt that I took a coaching seminar last year as part of my continuing education in the district. A local coach developed a module for current and future coaches to learn the ins-and-outs of athletic administration as well as the hurdles athletes face away from the field and issues that schools and coaches face.

Marc: Seems to have helped you land the gig here.

Danielle: So what have you been up to since we last saw each other?

Marc: After I shut the club down, I took a little time off before figuring out what I wanted to do next. I couldn’t really find a next chapter until after I was hospitalized a couple of years ago for anxiety and depression. Once my psychiatrist got my medication straightened out, I got into coaching education, developing the module you mentioned.

Danielle: That was your creation?!

Marc: Yep. 100% my own thinking on how best to get female coaches on equal footing with the inside track that men seem to always be on when it comes to knowing people in the business and informal mentoring.

Danielle: I know you’re not in the athletic department here, so where do you work on campus?

Marc: Luther Hall. I am the school’s chaplain.

Danielle: Noooooooooo……..

Marc: Yes. I was set to go to seminary about 15 years ago, but my synodical candidacy committee denied me entrance due to debt racked up getting my two master’s degrees. During my sabbatical from soccer, I started the local synod’s diaconate education program. I was consecrated as a deacon in June and was asked, based on my past experience in campus ministry and student affairs, to take on the position here when Carthage’s campus pastor chose not to re-locate for the job.

Danielle: I better eat or I’ll be late for our coaches’ meeting at 1. No second training today because of the team meeting this evening following dinner.

Marc: I need to get truckin’ or my goddaughter Erin will wonder where I got off to. Great seeing you again. Still as button-cute as I remember. Maybe we can do lunch sometime and you can fill me in on what’s happened with you in the last three years. Opening service for freshmen and athletes is at 4 in Bonhoeffer Chapel in case you’re interested.

Danielle smiled at Marc as they parted and he found Erin.

Erin: How long could a burger and fries take to be made?

Marc: I ran into a former player of mine from MUSC. She’s the assistant women’s soccer coach here.

Erin: Cool. You’ll have to introduce me to her at some point.

Marc: I think I can do that at the All-Sports Mixer on Wednesday. Have you met your roommate yet?

Erin: No. She was at practice. I’ll hopefully see her when I get back to my room. What time is service again?

Marc: 4:00. It will be VERY similar to what you’re used to in your home congregation.

Erin: I should get back to see if roomie is around and to maybe meet some of my teammates.

Erin left Albrecht and went back to Augsburg to try and make a few friends before orientation started tonight.

***

Erin unlocked the door to her room and saw her roommate watching television.

Cassie Kingston: You must be Erin.

Cassie stood up and greeted her roommate with a handshake.

Erin: You’re Cassie, then. Cute boyfriend you have.

Cassie: Thanks. We’ve been together three years now. He’s playing soccer at St. Thomas up in the Twin Cities.

Erin: Is that where you’re from?

Cassie: Yes, Woodbury to be exact. You?

Erin: Rockford, MI, about ten miles northeast of Grand Rapids.

Cassie: What are you majoring in?

Erin: Management. Yourself?

Cassie: Marketing.

Erin: I know you’re an athlete since you were already moved in when I got here this morning. What sport?

Cassie: Soccer. I’m a defender.

Erin: I play lacrosse. Defender as well.

Cassie: I’m not sure how our team will do this year. We have 14 freshmen out of 20 spots on the team.

Erin: My uncle told me that we had 18 freshmen among our 24-player roster. He also ran into your assistant coach while we are at lunch earlier.

Cassie: Danielle? She’s a cutie. Of course, I don’t swing that way.

Erin: It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

Cassie: So you do?

Erin: Yes and no. Yes as in I THINK I do, but no in terms of any experience.

Cassie: You know that women’s sports tends to be a fertile ground for same-sex relationships. Maybe you’ll get lucky and one of your teammates will be an option.

Erin: I’m not TOO eager to jump someone at the moment. Just want to get to know people here. Being from out of state, it’s a little intimidating knowing no one right now.

Cassie: I guess being in a spring sport puts you at a disadvantage in that department versus the fall sport athletes. We had a ready-made group of friends when we came to campus two weeks ago.

Erin heard some commotion and went into the hall to check it out. She saw a few of the women on her floor running toward the stairwell and then through the door to go downstairs. When the person chasing all of them ran past her, she walked behind her and looked her over. Erin saw that her back was chiseled as the muscles poked around the areas that her t-back sport bra didn’t cover. She also noticed a tattoo on a good portion of her right arm. She knew that the mystery woman was at least a couple of inches taller than her 5’7″ self and that her backside was smokin’ in her yoga pants. Erin felt a little funny and thought to herself, “They sure don’t grow them like THAT where I’m from.” Her stomach turned over and, once her dorm mate turned around and Erin saw her magnetic smile and piercing eyes, she quickly thought about what to say as she came walking back down the hall. Fortunately, she didn’t have to make the first move.

Stephanie Lafleur: Someone as cute as you shouldn’t have your jaw dragging on the floor.

Erin: Wha? Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to gape. It’s just that your type doesn’t exist where I come from.

Steph: Where’s that?

Erin: West side of Michigan, near Grand Rapids.

Steph: I don’t come from TOO far from there. Kitchener, Ontario, about halfway between London and Toronto. Steph Lafleur.

Erin extended her hand to Steph. “Erin Matheson.”

Steph shook Erin’s hand, then looked her over. “Freshman or athlete?”

Erin: Both. Lacrosse player. You?

Steph: That’s one thing we have in common. I’m on the lacrosse team here as well.

Erin: You’ve got to be a goalkeeper, because no one would choose to be THAT buff and play lacrosse.

Steph: Score one for the pick-up artist. So, what part of you will I get to see most when we play, the back of your head or your bum?

Erin giggled, thinking “Damn! Girl got game!”

Erin: I guess you’ll need to get used to staring at my backside. I’m a defender, left side mostly.

Steph: You’re a bit of a firecracker, aren’t you? I think we’ll get along JUST FINE!

Erin: So what brings an Ontarian like yourself down here for college?

Steph: My dad works at Wilfred Laurier and I wanted to go to a Lutheran college, but not at home.

Erin: That used to be called Waterloo Lutheran University, right?

Steph: Another point for you. How do you know that?

Erin: My godfather told me a story about them choosing their new name so they wouldn’t have to buy new stationary since the initials were the same.

Steph: That’s an urban legend.

Erin: Have you met any of our future teammates yet?

Steph: The four that I was chasing down the stairs, they’re all on the lacrosse team.

Erin: Guess I’ll get to meet them at tonight’s team meeting and bonding time.

Steph: What are you majoring in?

Erin: Management.

Steph: Physical Education and Religion double major. I’d like to work at a Lutheran college either here in the States or back in Canada.

The two of them were running out of things to say. They were saved when the scared-away foursome sauntered back onto the floor.

Steph L. (to the group): Get over here. I’ve got a teammate of ours for you guys to meet.

The four women came over to the two of them and introduced themselves to Erin.

Sam Mueller: I’m Sam. This is my sister, Kristie, and our best friend Steph McNamara.

Kelley Ochowicz: KO, I mean Kelley Ochowicz.

Erin: Pleased to meet you. All of you freshmen?

Sam: Steph and I are sophomores, a couple of the very few in that class.

Erin: Did the two of you transfer in after Concordia left?

Sam: No. We applied to Concordia knowing that Carthage would be moving here after our first year. We wanted to have a lay of the land before the new school came in and Kristie started this year.

Kelley: Do we have any upperclassmen on the team?

Steph M.: There are supposed to be four seniors who have come up from what remained of Carthage. We’ll meet them tonight, I reckon.

A pair of students exited their room and came upon the mini-team meeting in the hallway.

Christen Prince: Hi! I’m Christen. Who do we have here?

The girls introduced themselves to Christen, who then introduced her roommate, Julie, to them since she decided to go shy around the rambunctious group.

Erin: Sorry to have to back out of this get-to-know-you session, but I need to get changed before going to the opening service. My godfather is the chaplain and it wouldn’t look good if I were to miss it.

Steph L.: I should head back to my room and do the same. Catch all of you at the team meeting if not before.

Erin and Steph changed and the two of them met in the lobby around 3:45 to walk over to Bonhoeffer Chapel. While waiting on Erin, Steph met a couple more of her teammates, roommates Savannah Johnson and Morgan Andringa, as they returned from the fitness center. Walking over to the chapel, Erin and Steph were passed by a group of freshmen being a bit silly. The pair laughed at them while chatting on the way. Erin looked Steph over briefly and got a similar feeling of nausea to what she had when viewing her in the dorm hallway earlier. Steph peeked at Erin out of the corner of her eye, admiring her unadorned beauty. Once they reached the chapel, both went to open the door and their hands connected. Erin pulled hers back, letting Steph open and hold the door for her to enter. They walked into the sanctuary and found seats. Erin went to the front and spoke to Marc for a few seconds, giving him a couple of words of encouragement and squeezing his hand before going back and sitting down next to Steph. She scanned through the hymnal to familiarize herself with the liturgy for worship, then showed it to Steph, who recognized the layout as similar to the regular Sunday liturgy at WLU’s chapel. Finding another common thread with Erin, Steph settled in and prepared her mind and heart for worship while waiting for the service to begin. Seeing Steph in prayer, Erin reached over and took her hand, then joined her in quiet contemplation.

***

Erin and Steph walked up to the front of the chapel following service, where Erin introduced Steph to Marc. While there, she asked him if they could come over on Sunday for dinner and a break from campus, to which her godfather said yes. After the girls left, Marc headed back to Luther Hall. On his way there, Danielle stopped him and asked if tomorrow afternoon would be a good time to get together for lunch. He told her that it was a VERY good time since he would be tied-up most of the day on-campus with orientation. She complimented him on the service and winked at him before leaving to grab dinner off-campus ahead of the athletic team meetings later in the evening.

***

Once the pair got their food in the dining hall, Erin looked around and saw a couple of women eating by themselves. Recognizing them from earlier in the day, Steph walked over to them with Erin trailing.

Steph: Mind if we join you, Morgan?

Morgan Andringa: Not at all. It’d actually be nice to meet some of our teammates before the team meeting.

Erin: Then today is your lucky day. Erin Matheson, lacrosse defender and owner of the worst hairdo at my high school.

Morgan: Morgan Andringa, and I think I can give you a run in the rat’s nest race.

Savannah (shyly): I’m Savannah.

Steph: Where are the two of you from, and why did you choose Trinity?

Morgan: Madison, and I chose to come here to do something different than the rest of my family. I think they counted that 26 members of my clan had attended the University of Wisconsin. My dad played for the 1990 National Champion men’s hockey team and my grandfather was a long-time team doctor for the local high schools and UW sports.

Savannah: Fredonia, just north of here, and I came to Trinity because it’s close to home. My parents are making me live on-campus because they’re afraid I’m destined to be a hermit due to my severe shyness and introversion.

Steph: Kitchener, Ontario, and it’s the combination of faith and lacrosse, not to mention getting away from home, that brought me over the border.

Erin: Rockford, Michigan, a suburb of Grand Rapids, and I chose Trinity over Concordia-Ann Arbor because 1) the lacrosse team plays at a higher level, and 2) the scholarship money I got as a result of going to one of the 28 ELCA colleges or universities.

Two of the jokesters that had run past Erin and Steph earlier came over and sat down.

Lindsey Hoffman: Hi, Savannah, Morgan. Haven’t met you other two yet.

Steph and Erin introduced themselves.

Lindsey: Lindsey Hoffman, or as I am known in my hometown and on the lacrosse field, The Hoff.

Emily Sommer: I’m Emily, purveyor of Instagram witticisms and a sit-down comedian.

Erin: I hope you’re ready to meet your match, because I am quick on the draw with the funny.

Steph (to Lindsey): Just what we need as a team of mostly freshmen, two of our players in a constant battle to out-joke each other.

Savannah: Steph, what position do you play?

Emily: Isn’t it obvious with the tattoo and the guns? She’s gotta be a goalkeeper.

Steph: Is my physique THAT much of a giveaway?

Lindsey: I’d have to say so.

Erin saw Christen and Julie on their way out of the hall and waved at them. Steph spied a pair of older students who looked very much alike and had on Carthage lacrosse t-shirts. She walked over to them and started a conversation.

Steph: The pair of you have to be two of the seniors that are coming up from Kenosha. Steph Lafleur.

Jessica Fisher: Jess, and this is Megan.

Steph: Are you twins?

Megan Racicot: No. In fact, we’re not related at all. Just luck of the gene pool that we look so much alike. You’ve got to be one of the two freshmen goalkeepers we have.

Steph: Again with the quick jumping-to-conclusions. You’re right, but I don’t get how other players are so quick to peg me as a goalie.

Jess: You’re built like a Sherman Tank. Very similar in stature to our goalkeeper at Carthage, Nicole. You’ll get to meet her later at the team meeting.

Steph: I need to get back to the players I was dining with. Nice to meet you and I’ll see you in a bit.

Steph went back to her table and filled in the rest of the ladies about Jess and Megan. Once everyone had finished eating, they returned their trays and left the dining hall.

 

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The US Olympic Curling Trials Process: Where Three Equals Five and the Points Don’t Matter

The 2016-2017 curling season has come to a close for all but three teams in the United States (Jamie Sinclair and John Shuster will play in the Humptys Champions Cup next week, while Heath McCormick will be in St. Gallen, SUI this week for the European Masters). With that being the case, attention is now devoted to which teams will be part of the US Olympic Curling Trials this November in Omaha. The process by which teams gain entry takes most of the work out of the hands of the teams and rests it with a committee who can decide to use whatever criteria they want to choose the number and names of those teams. I will say at the outset that I disagree profusely with the process, but since this is how the field will be decided, I will present the case for the other contenders and let the reader decide who should/shouldn’t be in Omaha.

We start first with the direct entry criteria. In order for a team to gain an automatic berth to the Trials, they must either:

  1. Finish fifth or higher at the most recent World Curling Championship;
  2. Finish in the top 15 of the World Curling Tour Order of Merit (two-year point total) standings; or
  3. Finish in the top 15 of the WCT Order of Merit Year-to-Date standings

Team John Shuster and Team Nina Roth both qualified for the Trials by way of #1 (Shuster finishing fourth in Edmonton and Roth fifth in Beijing). As for #2, the closest unqualified teams were Craig Brown’s at 25th and Jamie Sinclair’s at 31st. #3 also looks to not render a qualification (Heath McCormick’s foursome ranks 19th, 23+ points behind the 15th position with two other teams competing in the event between them and 15th, while Sinclair is 28th). With only one team of each gender qualified directly to the Trials, a Trials Selection Committee will convene to choose which other teams will be included to fill out the field (minimum of two choices, maximum of four).

Because the field can be anywhere between three and five teams and the men’s and women’s competition do not have to have the same number of teams in them, determining how many and who should be included can be a tough question. On the men’s side, three teams currently reside in the top 30 of the WCT Year-to-Date standings (McCormick at 19th, Shuster at 20th, and Brown at 29th) and in my opinion should all be in Omaha. With two more possible selections (remember, the committee CAN stop here and go with just three), here are the 2016-2017 resumes of three teams that could be considered to fill one or both open spots:

Team A: 8-5 record against teams under consideration, 4 wins over top-20 YTD teams, winning percentage of .542.

Team B: 2-4 record against teams under consideration, 2 wins over top-20 YTD teams, winning percentage of .500.

Team C: 4-5 record against teams under consideration, 5-6 record against HPP teams, winning percentage of .600.

Which, if any of these teams, do you select?  A and C have better numbers than B, but are those numbers good enough in comparison to Shuster, Brown, and McCormick? I don’t think either team would be out of their depth in Omaha and given their performances at this year’s USA Nationals (3rd and 2nd, respectively) could challenge for the Olympic berth.

Now to the women. The only women’s team with a clear case for inclusion is Jamie Sinclair’s (USA Nationals champion, qualified for playoffs in eight events, 4 wins against potential Olympic opponents). Beyond that, selecting one or more teams to join Roth and Sinclair is difficult. As with the men, here are this year’s resumes of three contenders:

Team A: 4-1 record against teams under consideration, average finish of 67.5 (on a scale of 100, lowest result dropped).

Team B: 1-5 record against teams under consideration, 6-1 record against HPP teams, 3 wins against top-20 YTD teams.

Team C: 3-2 record against teams under consideration, 1 win over top-20 YTD teams, 2 semifinal appearances in WCT events.

Who do you choose? B is clearly better against the top teams in women’s curling (the 6-1 against the HPP teams stands out), but A is best of these three teams head-to-head and is more consistent in her results. I would invite both of these teams to Trials as their accomplishments show they are legitimate contenders for the Olympic berth. Unfortunately, I don’t believe one could justify adding Team C to the mix as their 0-6 record against Roth/Sinclair would seem to indicate that they would have trouble staying in contention after the first round-robin.

Click the links, shout at me on Twitter (http://twitter.com/backseatgaffer), and hopefully we will see USA Curling make selections that benefit the game in this country and provide incentive for teams to play the tour in the hopes of one day representing the US in international competition.

An Exercise of Convolution: The Canadian Olympic Trials Process in a Nutshell

As the 2016-2017 curling season comes to a close this month, all eyes are starting to focus on qualification for the Canadian Olympic Curling Trials. The WestJet Players’ Championship in Toronto will be the last opportunity for teams to pick up Canadian Tour Ranking System (CTRS) points in the hopes of gaining a direct berth to the Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings (the fancy name for their Olympic Curling Trials) in December in Ottawa. The process for direct entry to the Trials seems fairly straight-forward on paper, but is riddled with convolution that would make even the sanest person wonder “who the heck came up with this?”. Break out your abacuses and lawyers-on-retainer as I explain.

Nine teams of each gender will compete at the Roar of the Rings. Seven teams gain direct entry by way of winning either the 2015 or 2016 Canada Cup (slots 1 and 3), the 2016 or 2017 Scotties Tournament of Hearts (women) or Tim Hortons Brier (men) provided they make the podium at that year’s World Championship (slots 2 and 4), or by finishing first in the two-year (2015-2017) CTRS standings (slot 5) or first or second in the one-year (2016-2017) CTRS standings (slots 6 and 7). The remainder of the field on both sides will be determined at a pre-trials event in Summerside, PEI in early November with twelve teams competing for the final two spots. Looks pretty simple, right? Not so fast, as the four “events-based” direct entries were not collected by four different teams. On the women’s side, Rachel Homan won the 2015 Canada Cup and the 2017 Scotties Tournament of Hearts (coupled with a gold at the World Championship) while 2016 STOH champion Chelsea Carey failed to medal at that year’s World Championship, thus not earning the entry. As for the men, Kevin Koe won both the 2015 Canada Cup and the 2016 Tim Hortons Brier (plus gold at the World Championship). 2017 Tim Hortons Brier winner Brad Gushue can secure his direct entry to the Trials by medaling at this week’s Ford Worlds. So how do those open spots (one or two for the men and two for the women) get filled? This is where Curling Canada has created much confusion. First, they determined that Carey’s position would be filled by the highest-ranked team in the 2015-2016 CTRS standings not already qualified, which was Jennifer Jones. Jones would go on to win the 2016 Canada Cup, thus leaving THAT direct spot unfilled. Logic would indicate that you put in the replacement teams AFTER you fill in all spots based on the prescribed qualification method (and the language used in the process documents would lead one to believe that would be the case, in that the replacements are the highest-ranked teams in the CTRS not already qualified). Curling Canada, however, states that they will fill in the spots IN ORDER (#1 through #7, with the replacement being slotted in even if they would have qualified in their own right through the one-year or two-year slots). Below are the direct entry positions 1) as they exist with duplicates, 2) as they exist with open spots in slots 1-4 filled in at the end, and 3) as they are to be filled with replacements slotted in order:

Women

  1. Homan, Jones, Jones, Homan, Homan, Homan, Jones.
  2. Homan, Jones, (Michelle Englot), (Tracy Fleury), Val Sweeting, Allison Flaxey, Casey Scheidegger.
  3. Homan, Jones, Flaxey, Sweeting, Carey, Scheidegger, Englot.

Men

  1. Koe, Koe, Reid Carruthers, Gushue, Gushue, Gushue, Carruthers.
  2. Koe, (Steve Laycock), Carruthers, Gushue, Mike McEwen, Brad Jacobs, John Epping.
  3. Koe, Gushue, Carruthers, Jacobs, McEwen, Epping, Laycock.

Not a WHOLE lot of difference (the same seven men qualify via methods 2 and 3, while there is only one change amongst the women), but going down to 5th on the two-year standings because the 3rd and 4th-ranked teams were slotted in as replacements for slots 3 and 4 and 5th to fill the one-year leader spot for the same reason when it could be done “cleaner” (meaning that the highest-ranked teams in each of those standings that did not qualify through Canada Cup or Scotties/Worlds would gain their entry via the CTRS slots) just seems a bit odd to me. Additionally, moving Gushue out of his “earned” spot into a replacement spot also looks goofy.

Dear Curling Canada: Clean up the language in your documents to say what you mean along with an explanation of its purpose and/or use a more transparent method of filling in the field when spots go unused. Also, please provide examples using current teams of how things would work if you get duplicate qualifications or, much like the Grand Slam of Curling does with regards to Humptys Champions Cup qualification, publish periodic updates to the field starting December 1 of the year preceding the Trials.

I’ve said my piece, now let me hear yours, either in the comments here or at @backseatgaffer.

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 – 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.