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Plenty of local and northern flavour at U18 curling nationals
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Come time for the 2023 Nickel City Curling Championships in March, the 12 day stretch that will see the U Sports / CCAA Curling Championships and the Canadian Mixed Doubles Curling Championships hosted in Sudbury, there is certainly hope that at least some local content will be in the mix.

That said, the start of the run of national playdowns is guaranteed to have a Sudbury angle or two, as well as a clear and definite feel of Northern Ontario given that the bonspiel that kicks things off – the U18 Canadian Boys and Girls Curling Championship - is being hosted from February 5th to the 11th in Timmins.

Last weekend in North Bay, a pair of Northern Credit Union Community Centre rinks secured the NOCA (Northern Ontario Curling Association) U18 provincial banners, earning the right to enter play as Team NO #1 on both the boys’ and girls’ side of the draw. Furthermore, they did it in style as Team Toner and Team Rajala combined to boast an unblemished record of 14-0 over the course of five days.

To boot, all six Sudbury natives on those teams will be making a second straight appearance at U18 nationals, with both entries having competed in Oakville last year. Suffice to say, there is plenty of reason for optimism as the well-known foursomes put the finishing touches on their games in anticipation of what they hope will be a deep run in the playoffs.

The team of Mia Toner (skip), Valerie Ouimet (vice), Justine Toner (second), Clara Dissanayake (lead) and coach Lee Toner will enter play with boatloads of momentum on their side, having reeled off nine straight victories at the Explornet Provincials, with four games decided by nine points or more and back to back playoff wins over Rylie Paul (Kakabeka Falls) coming by scores of 6-1 and 7-4.

“Our team really did a good job of keeping the pressure on, even in those games where we were up,” suggested Mia Toner, the only one of the four who ages out of the U18 ranks after this year. “Staying aggressive was something that we really wanted to work on and had talked about going into this tournament.”

Benefitting from the return of all four members who advanced through to the quarter-finals in 2022 before falling to Claire Booth of Alberta, Team Toner is as prepared as they come for an environment that is certainly different from the overwhelming majority of weekend events.

“One thing we really tried to do this week was not live on a roller coaster,” said skip Toner. “Don’t get too high with the highs or too low with the lows. Just stay present, in the moment and make the shot that matters; the shot that you are playing.”

“That was really critical for us.”

Seeded in Pool A along with representatives from Québec (2 teams), New Brunswick, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, Toner and company will open play on (Monday) February 6th at 9:30 a.m. against Anne-Sophie Gionest of Québec.

On the boys side of things, skip Brendan Rajala is returning only half of his 2022 team - that in the form of Sacré-Coeur senior Jesse Crozier (second), though this may not be a bad thing.

In Thunder Bay vice Jackson Dubinsky, who also recruited northwesterner Adam Wiersema to fill the role of lead, Team Rajala is getting an 18 year old Lakehead University freshman who appeared in no less than three separate national championships alone during the 2021-2022 season.

Now part of a U18 group that ran the table in North Bay with victories of 6-3, 10-0 and 11-0 before getting the better of Evan Robert (Community First CC – Sault Ste Marie) both in their final round robin game (6-5) as well as the final (8-3), Dubinsky knows that he and his new teammates are as well positioned as pretty much any other team in the field going in.

“The thing I would convey to my teammates is that we got here for a reason and we are going to do well,” said the Math & Science major (with Concurrent Education) whose younger sister (Claire) is playing third with the Rylie Paul rink that secured the second Northern Ontario berth in Timmins.

“There are added pressures – the crowd, switching between club and arena ice – but we are good enough to win it,” Dubinsky continued. “Let’s just focus on that.”

“We’re definitely a little bit more confident going into nationals this year,” added Crozier. That could well be equal parts experience from 2022 and the rush of coming off a provincial playdown where they clearly played to their expectations.

“We knew that lots of the teams would be head hunting for us, that we would be one of the top teams there (in North Bay),” said Crozier. “We knew that we had to make them harder shots. We’re a pretty decent team, but our coach (Brian Rajala) reminded us that we shouldn’t take any other team lightly.”

“Every game means something; it really does.”

After scoring one with the hammer in the eighth end to slip by Team Robert and ensure their 4-0 record in the preliminary round, Team Rajala jumped out to a 5-1 after just three ends in the rematch in the final. “We got more dialed in on the ice and draw weight, and strategy-wise, we picked up on stuff that we were able to key on,” said Dubinsky.

“We just played better as a team that game. The communication was a lot better. We functioned cohesively that game.”

The Thunder Bay – Sudbury quartet find themselves in Pool C along with Northern Ontario #2 (Team Robert), both Saskatchewan entries, as well as Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Quebec. They get things underway nice and early, part of the Opening Draw on February 5th when they do battle with Québec (Philippe Jauron).

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