Like most athletes these days, curlers, even at the elite level, would dearly love to ease their way back from the pandemic, back into action and very gradually finding their form.
When you are competing in the stratosphere of Team Fleury (Sudbury skip Track Fleury and her Manitoba rink of Selena Njegovan, Liz Fyfe and Kristin MacCuish), unfortunately, you simply do not have that luxury.
With Olympic Trials set to run from November 20th to the 28th in Saskatoon, the Fleury foursome and all of the other teams on hand will have less than three months to hit their stride on the ice, with most having played very few bonspiels since March of 2020 (thankfully, both the 2021 Brier and Scotties were contested in a bubble format last spring in Calgary).
All of which explains why a season opening tournament win at the 2021 Oakville Labour Day Classic last weekend is seen as so important.
“We were quite pleased with our level of play,” said Fleury, back home this week after guiding her team through a stretch of seven straight victories, coming from behind to squeeze past Suzanne Birt of PEI in the final, 8-7.
Note of interest to OHL fans: The long-time lead of Team Birt is none other than Michelle McQuaid, younger sister of former Sudbury Wolves defenceman, Adam McQuaid.
“Despite the long layoff, I think we were pleasantly surprised by the shot-making and happy with our performance,” added Fleury. “I think it helped that we were able to get on the ice together in Edmonton two weeks ago; that really helped kick-start our season.”
A top five team in the World Curling Tour at times, the Fleury quartet needed little in the way of a kick-start in Oakville, cruising through pool play at 4-0 thanks to triumphs over Laurie St Georges (9-2), Thea Coburn (8-3), Jacqueline Harrison (6-5) and Marie-Elaine Little (7-3).
After relinquishing a 4-0 lead after four ends in the quarter-final to American Jamie Sinclair, Fleury came through in the crunch, securing one in the eighth end and advancing with a 5-4 win.
The quartet was pushed even further in the semi-finals as the four-time Scotties skip scored one in an extra end to eliminate Hollie Duncan 7-6 in a contest that went back and forth. Team Fleury then trailed 7-4 in the final after six ends, with very little in the way of panic to be seen.
“The sixth end of the final was a little unfortunate for us, giving up a big three-ender,” stated Fleury. “But we knew that we were playing well so we just wanted to try and play those last two ends as well as we could. We put together a good end in the seventh to tie it and then put a lot of pressure on them in the last end.”
Not perfect, certainly, but awfully good for an inaugural event of the fall.
“It all kind of comes back naturally, but I will say that it will take a little time just to get back into some of the routines,” said Fleury. “We were a little bit slower on some strategy decisions, just because we hadn’t been on the ice a whole lot. The more we get out there, the more it will come back.”
Understandably pleased with her showing, Fleury was also ecstatic with the quality of ice-making to which the entire field was treated in Oakville. “We were spoiled with really good ice, especially for this time of year when it’s so warm,” she exclaimed. “We definitely prefer a bit more movement in the ice.”
“It just kind of gives you more opportunity to make a wider variety of shots. It’s also nice when the speed is consistent across all sheets.”
Team Fleury has four more events in which to fine tune before Olympic Trials, with the ultra successful local skip hopeful that the best still lies ahead. “We’ve been together for three years now and we’ve seen steady improvement over that time,” she said. “I don’t think that we have peaked quite yet.”
Few on hand in Oakville were likely more proud than Kathy and Gerry Horgan.
At the same time that daughter, Tracy, was curling up a storm, local lads Tanner and Jake Horgan were busy leading their crew (Team Beuk) to a berth in the final, falling to Brad Jacobs and settling for second place.
With skip Jonathan Beuk sitting this one out – Team Beuk has a five player rotation at their disposal – the Horgan brothers were in highly familiar territory, partners at the back end of a competing rink. And just as has happened many times before, success would follow the tandem that combined with Wes Forget and Scott Chadwick in Oakville.
The team posted a 4-1 record in pool play, dropping their opener to Tyler Tardi (9-5), but getting the better of Mike McEwen (7-4), Jason Camm (9-5), John Epping (4-3) and Sam Steep (7-1).
Topping the standings in Pool B, the Kingston based quartet earned a bye to the semi-finals, trimming Glenn Howard 3-2 before losing to Jacobs. “We beat three teams that have played in the Slams in the last little bit – that’s something I’ve never done before (in a single event),” noted Tanner Horgan.
“The other thing that we were very proud was to beat Howard and Epping in the same weekend. That was a huge milestone for us because those are two of the teams that we will need to beat in the playdowns if we want to go to the Brier.”
It’s been an interesting few years for the Horgan boys, always side by side throughout their youth before a combination of age restrictions (for juniors) and other options would see Tanner and Jake curl separately for a stretch.
“I thought it was really refreshing for both of us,” said Tanner. “I thought we both needed a year away from each other, learning to appreciate each other a little more.”
In the immortal words of Peaches and Herb, “reunited and it feels so good.”
“I think because we are brothers and we have played together so long that we hold each other to such a high standard,” Horgan added. “Maybe a new teammate might be more careful and want to tip-toe around certain things, where we are direct and to the point with each other.”
The pair will have the chance to put the dynamic to the test again this weekend, back in Oakville for the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard.
With Scott Chadwick resting for this event, the Horgans and Forget will welcome Beuk back to the fold for a bonspiel that will also features Matt Dunstone, Jason Gunnlaugson, Pat Simmons, Karsten Sturmay, as well as the likes of Jacobs, Howard and Epping.