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Fleury and McCarville through to the final four
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The Team Fleury Express just keeps on chugging along - regardless of which conductor is at the helm.

Following an opening night 6-5 loss to the New Brunswick rink skipped by Andrea Crawford, the Manitoba foursome which kicked off play at the 2022 Scotties Tournament of Hearts with a lineup of Selena Njegovan (skip), Robyn Njegovan (vice), Liz Fyfe (second) and Kristin MacCuish (lead) due to traditional skip and Sudbury native Tracy Fleury remaining unavaible due to Covid protocol reeled off six consecutive victories, finding themselves sitting atop their pool and with the chance to bypass an opening round playoff match-up.

And with Fleury back in her slot for their last round robin game, the team entered as Wildcard #1 did not miss a beat, edging the playoff bound Northern Ontario host team (Krista McCarville, Kendra Lilly, Sarah Potts, Ashley Sippala) 8-6 on Thursday afternoon. A steal of two in the fourth end which gave Fleury a 3-1 lead at the time turned out to be decisive, with both crews scoring with the hammer the rest of the way.

Despite the setback, the NOCA champs with yet another Sudbury resident at vice in Kendra Lilly managed to join Fleury and company in remaining alive beyond preliminary round play. Their record of 5-3 proved to be enough when Emma Miskew (Wildcard #3) bounced Penny Barker in their final outing, eliminating Team Saskatchewan from further contention.

For the Fleury quintet, regaining the form that allowed the team to secure the number one overall ranking in the world prior to suffering a emotionally draining extra end loss in the final of the Olympic Trials in November was clearly a welcomed relief, and one which could not have been accomplished without the help of Robyn Njegovan, the sister-in-law of the vice turned skip who very quickly got things turned around with a 9-7 victory over Barker in their second match in Thunder Bay.

From there, it was a matter of taking care of business against Prince Edward Island (9-1), Miskew (11-9), Chelsea Carey (9-4), Newfoundland & Labrador (8-3), Nunavut (8-2) and finally Northern Ontario. The battle with Miskew was a wild affair, with the teams combining to score three points or more in no less than four separate ends, including a big five-pointer for Team Fleury in the seventh, giving the team a big 10-7 advantage.

As for Team McCarville, triumphs over both Carey (7-3) and Suzanne Birt (PEI - 8-5) got things rolling, with Miskew handing the Thunder Bay based squad their first setback, 8-5, last Sunday.

From there, it was time for an early week split, upending Nunavut 7-6 but losing 8-5 to Newfoundland, leading into a huge 8-7 extra end win over New Brunswick, with skip Crawford and company unbeaten heading into that encounter. Building up a 5-0 lead after the six ends the next day against Saskatchewan, McCarville dispatched of Team Barker 6-2, closing off with the loss to Fleury.

McCarville and Lilly will now look to lead their front end tandem past Team Nova Scotia (Christina Black), the second place finishers in Pool B. Team Fleury will play the winner of that game in a final four matchup that provides all those who have survived up to that point with a second life.

UPDATE: McCarville has moved on and will face Fleury, though it was not as easy as it initially seemed. Northern Ontario built up a 9-1 lead after just four ends of play, but after giving up four in the fifth, had to hold on near the end, besting the "Bluenosers" 11-8.

The two winners of the round one page playoff contest meet Saturday morning, with the team that prevails earning their place in the championship final. The two losers in round one will also meet in that same draw, the winner moving on to play later that day against the team that is vanquished in the afore-mentioned battle of the round one winners.

No sooner will the curtains close on the 2022 Scotties Tournament of Hearts that all eyes in this province turn to the provincial men’s curling championships, now rescheduled for both the Ontario and Northern Ontario competitors for the period of February 9th to the 13th.

This area will be represented in both events, with Tanner Horgan and his team of Jonathan Beuk, Wes Forget, Scott Chadwick and Jacob Horgan travelling to Port Elgin and the Bluewater Curling Club, part of a 12-team field looking to proudly don the colours of the Ontario association at the 2022 Tim Horton’s Brier.

Closer to home, Team MacEwan (Sandy MacEwan, Dustin Montpellier, Lee Toner, Luc Ouimet) are joining five other entries vying to be cheered on at nationals by the Call of the Moose, a wonderfully northern curling creation for those who emerge from these parts as NOCA champions.

Originally scheduled to take place in early January, both bonspiels fell victim to the Ontario lockdown. Thankfully, this is not the first BBQ for this veteran group of curlers (not that group BBQs were very much en vogue last month). With that experience comes a wisdom, a certain adaptability blended with an appreciation for any chance to step out on the ice, competing in a sport that you love.

“One thing we have learned with curling during a pandemic is to roll with the punches,” stated MacEwan via email recently. “I think more than anything, we are grateful this is happening at all. We know that it will have a different feel than ones we’ve played in the past. The preparation has been similar in some ways, different in others.”

“But we have always been a resilient bunch, which will hopefully help us when we hit the ice in the Sault,” summarized MacEwan.

Contesting a pre-Christmas bonspiel schedule that is slightly less expansive than their norm, Team MacEwan managed to squeeze in entries to three separate events, a foundational piece they are quite comfortable with, especially in light of the current environment.

“We’ve played this game long enough to know what’s coming and what we need to do, as a collective, to be ready,” said the skip. It might be tough to quantify exactly how close to 100% they currently feel about their level of curling, but suffice to say that it’s more than enough to give them a fighting chance in a bracket that is headlined by the juggernaut that is Team Brad Jacobs.

“We feel very close to where we want to be this time of year, and given the circumstances, I think we’re happy with that,” added MacEwan. “It hasn’t been without challenges and setbacks, but we’ve managed to forge a path to where we are now. Once we hit the ice, we know the competitive juices will kick in and we look forward to that.”

Dairy Queen - Sudbury - Kingsway / Val Caron