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A cross-country connection of curling talent converges on Countryside

They have come from far and wide – and for the next five days, they will call the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex home.

“They” are the 32 post-secondary curling teams that are in Sudbury this week, more than 140 young athletes representing six different provinces and vying for a quartet of national championship banners that are up for grabs at the 2023 U Sports – CCAA Curling Championship.

Ranging in age typically from about 17 to 25, they are also a very interesting and diverse group of young adults, something that was strikingly clear as I meandered my way through the assembled throng in the foyer of the Parker Building at Laurentian University on Wednesday.

Sam Mooibroek might not be a familiar name to most of the local curling faithful, but if you have followed the careers of Tanner and Jacob Horgan (the second of which is serving as skip of the Laurentian men’s team this week), you will know that these three have crossed paths countless times before, as far back (to my knowledge) as the Ottawa Valley Curling Association Super Spiel in November of 2016 – and quite likely before.

And if you follow U Sports curling, you will also be aware that Mooibroek is skip of the team that is effectively the defending champions – though one has to go back to 2020 Wilfrid Laurier rink with Matt Hall at skip and John Willsey at vice to find the last time the banner has been awarded.

“Our program has done really well the past few years, had lots of success – but this is a whole new team,” said Mooibroek, a 23 year-old native of Kitchener. “I think it’s a little easier for us because we had a good run in September at the mini-nationals sort of thing to determine who was going to the World University Games.”

“I think some of the pressure came off with that.”

Mooibroek and the WLU Hawks claimed their third straight OUA title roughly one month ago, edging the Queen’s Gaels from Kingston and now enter nationals as certainly one of the favourites. “We’ve put in the work before hand and the guys have all of the skills,” said Mooibroek.

“If we can stay calm, stay within ourselves and make our shots, I think we have a good chance this week.”

Given the gap since the last set of university and college nationals (2020) and the ones that kickoff Wednesday in Sudbury, Braden Pelech is clearly the exception. The skip of the Concordia University of Edmonton Thunder is in his fifth year at the school and was part of the team that captured CCAA gold in both 2019 (Fredericton) and 2020 (Portage la Prairie).

“When you get out there, the first game can be pretty intimidating,” said the 22 year old native of St Albert. “It’s loud, it’s a big arena – but you try and take it all in and enjoy it.”

Spoken like a young man who knew enough to grow from his previous visits to nationals.

“I think with every event, you learn something new,” said Pelech. “You learn to pace yourself, you learn about the ice and how to curl it. Even playing against different provinces, you learn so much about other teams – and about yourself.”

Named as the Top Female Player at the recent ACAC Championships, Josie Zimmerman (University of Alberta Augustana Vikings) is taking part in her first national championship of any kind, even as she has found all of the time spent on her sport coming together quite nicely in recent years.

“It’s really the foundation that my coaches started when I was really young, the time they spent with me after practice when I wanted to throw a few more rocks – and having a very supportive team is a big part of it,” said Zimmerman. Like most who are taking part in their first Canadian competition, there is a balancing act that is needed to try and reach peak performance for this young skip.

“We want to take it all in and enjoy the time we’re here – and yes, we want to come in a do well,” said Zimmerman. “We’ve made it to nationals and it’s a big deal – but playing loose and playing to have fun helps us perform better on the ice.”

While the vast majority of these curlers are visiting Sudbury for the very first time, the same cannot be said for McMaster Marauders’ lead Clara Dissanayake, a member of the OUA gold medal winning team but also lead with the highly successful Mia Toner NCUCC junior team locally.

Regardless of the team she is on, the graduate of Lo-Ellen Park Secondary in her first year at Mac is most happy when each and every end starts with her. “Lead is my favourite,” said Dissanayake. “I like being able to throw my rocks and then focus on the sweeping for the rest of the entirety of the end.”

Although not a Sudbury native, Emilie Lovitt Sansoucy (TMU Bold) did spend three years in the nickel city as a teammate of current Laurentian women’s curlers Bella and Piper Croisier. “It’s so nice to be here and see old teammates and friends,” said the Ottawa native who was born in Austria, both of her parents working for the United Nations.

“On our way here, I was pointing out buildings and telling stories, so I feel a little like a tour guide,” said Lovitt Sansoucy with a smile. “I love Sudbury and I love coming home here. I was so lucky to spend a few special years here.”

In the end, we will cede the last word to Laurentian vice Olivier Bonin-Ducharme, who along with skip Jacob Horgan was unable to attend the OUA playdowns (both were competing in provincial mixed doubles), but are both eligible to return to their team this week.

“We are all crazy busy – and not only with curling – so we’ve had some scheduling issues,” said the graduate of Collège Note-Dame. “But if we really dial in on the team mechanics, we are all easy going guys with great coaches.”

“I’m excited to see what crowd shows up and what happens.”

Palladino Subaru