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Monday, Mar. 25, 2019
Brunton, Horgan and company making return trip to nationals
2019-01-05
by Randy Pascal

For the fifth time in the past six years, both of the teams representing Northern Ontario at the 2019 New Holland Canadian Junior Curling Championships in Prince Albert (Saskatchewan) are Sudbury-based rinks, with the event taking place from January 19th through to the 27th.

Curl Sudbury entries skipped by Tanner Horgan and Kira Brunton extended the recent run of local success, both looking very much the part of national contenders in working their way through the field last week at the Idylwylde Golf & Country Club.

For Horgan and his crew of Jacob Horgan, Max Cull and Maxime Blais, this ritual has become very much a “circled on the calendar a year in advance” process, with the Horgan siblings and Blais making their sixth consecutive appearance at Canadian Juniors.

Cull, for his part, stepped in to replace Nicholas Bissonnette for the 2018-2019 season, the latter pursuing his academic passion in the GTA this year. The Horgan rink completed a methodical run through the six team competition with a 9-1 win over Nick Lemieux (Community First Curling Club – Sault Ste Marie) on Sunday morning.

That marked the end of a six game winning streak, one which would see Team Horgan string together round robin victories over Matthew Duizer from Timmins (15-0), Myles Harding from Thunder Bay (6-3), Josh Landry from New Liskeard (12-3), Chris Silver from Thunder Bay (9-2), and Lemieux, in their first encounter, 11-5.

The pre-bonspiel favourites were leading 3-1 after six ends when the floodgates opened, as Horgan scored a deuce with the hammer in seven, and closed off the affair with a steal of four in the eighth. “There were a couple of small errors, early on, from our team that we don't normally make,” admitted skip Horgan.

“We were struggling a little bit. We got the deuce early, but that took an amazing shot from Jake. But as we caught on to the ice, we started doing better. The last two ends, we put together a couple of really nice ends.”

Given their familiarity with nationals, it's no surprise that the team is confident that they are unlikely to face a whole lot of scenarios that they haven't encountered before. “The biggest difference in terms of prepping for nationals now is that back then, we didn't have much arena experience,” said Horgan. “Now, we know we can just adapt to how much curl there is. We've played on so many different surfaces.”

The one slight exception is Cull, who has never attended junior nationals, though the long-time friend of the Horgan brothers was a member of the U18 teams that Jacob skipped to gold and bronze respectively at nationals in 2017 and 2018. That said, the Horgans and Blais have curled almost exclusively this fall with vice Mark Kean, competing in Men's Open events as a means of preparing to face the best junior curlers in the country.

“It's hard to integrate someone that fast, but I felt that there was a real progression this week,” said Horgan, addressing the need to work Cull quickly into the mix. “You could just feel it in the cohesiveness of the team. Everyone's roles were not quite figured out at the beginning of the week, but it just seemed that with the last couple of games, we were finally comfortable.”

“The good thing is that Jake knows Max (Cull) really well, so he has given me tips on how to broom him,” Horgan continued. “Also, you have to give it to Max. He's so easy going and so easy to get along with, that it was easy to integrate him into the team.”

Though securing the NOCA banner is old hat for Horgan and his crew, the fact that this one represents the last for both the skip and lead (Maxime Blais), both about to age out of the U21 ranks, carried a little extra meaning with the ultra-talented final rock thrower.

"It feels a little weird," said Tanner Horgan. "This one meant a lot. It feels like there is no more pressure, we finally did it. A few years back, we were thinking maybe we could win five in a row, six in a row, and now, it's finally happened. We have that legacy in the juniors, and it feels really special."

The experience factor might not be at quite the same depth for the Kira Brunton rink that includes Megan Smith, Sara Guy and Kate Sherry, though it is impressive, nonetheless. The local quartet have combined for seven previous visits to nationals – Brunton in 2016; Smith in 2016 & 2017, Guy in 2014, 2015 & 2017, and Sherry in 2016.

Their path, this year, was an interesting one, to say the least. “We don't have very many teams in the north, but we have good teams in the north,” said Brunton this week. While her team would split their round robin encounters with the Alyssa Denyer Curl Sudbury foursome, it was the match-ups against a younger but arguably equally talented Bella Croisier quartet that would garner the bulk of the local attention.

Though Team Brunton seemed to validate the benefit of a little additional experience in beating Croisier 7-3 and 8-7 in their two meetings before the final, the results set up a scenario whereby Brunton and company would need to win three straight against a team that absolutely is more than competitive against them, and also buck a trend that has seen first place finishers in round robin play fall in the gold medal encounter in previous years in the NOCA Junior final.

“Honestly, we kind of decided not to talk at all about the past history and the fact that we had to beat them three times in a row,” said Brunton. “The mindset was just go out and play our best game. It didn't matter who we were playing, or what we were playing for, we just wanted to have a good game.”

Team Brunton also knew that their best road to success likely involved fewer rocks in play. “Our DNA, as a team, is hitting,” she said. “We're a pretty strong hitting team. I think they were trying to suck us into a draw game in the second round robin game that we played against them. We knew after the first two games that we wanted to keep it pretty simple against them.”

With both Megan Smith and Sara Guy graduating from the U-21 ranks, there was a little extra incentive to cap off this age bracket in style. “We really wanted to win it for them,” said Brunton.

“Honestly, given the season that we've had, the fact that we have played so well and grew so much as a team this year, it was almost a relief to win this weekend.”

While the bulk of playdown action picks up again next weekend, the Croisier U18 rink, which also includes Jamie Smith, Lauren Rajala and Piper Croisier are back on the ice in Sault Ste Marie as we speak, one of eight teams vying for the right to represent Ontario at the 2019 Canada Winter Games in Red Deer, Alberta.

Heading into play Saturday morning, Team Croisier is tied for first place with a record of 4-1, sharing the lead in the standings with both Emily Deschenes of Manotick and Rachel Steele of Port Perry.

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