When it comes to the 2020 New Holland Canadian Junior Curling Championships, Sudbury has produced more of the same - only different.
Yes, it is true that the skips of both the Northern Ontario women's and men's teams, Kira Brunton and Jacob Horgan, respectively, are both back at the national playdowns, in the same capacity, for a second straight year.
Yet every single one of their six teammates was not donning the green and gold at this event last January in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
The good news for Brunton, who served as skip at nationals in 2019, and viced for Megan Smith in 2016, is that there is plenty of experience, specific to Canadians, within her roster. Both Lindsay Dubue (three appearances) and Calissa Daly (2) have curled at this bonspiel, previously, while fellow Sudburian, Jessica Leonard, has a U18 national title already to her credit.
Getting to this point, however, wasn't easy, as Team Brunton finished round robin play at provincials deadlocked in a three-way tie with both Bella Croisier and Abby Deschenes, with all three rinks at 2-2.
"After losing the first game, we knew that we had to bounce back," said Brunton. "Even getting to the tie-breaker situation, we still knew that we just had to win two games, to put two good games together. I think for the whole weekend, we hadn't really put a great game together."
"For the last day, we really wanted to have all four players playing our best, and that's all that you can really ask for when you're playing to go to a national championship."
Despite having competed at countless competitions which brought together the very best from each province, Brunton is not about to take any of this for granted. "Nationals are just such a special experience," she said. "You get to represent your province, they play the national anthem before every game, you meet little kids before the game, you give them presents."
"It's just a completely different feeling than going to a bonspiel," Brunton continued. "Also, with a bonspiel, you want to qualify. At nationals, you want to win. You don't get anything for second place, so you might as well win the whole thing, right."
This was not necessarily a trip that Jessica Leonard was expecting to make if we had checked in last summer. Originally slated to serve as the fifth for the team, the talented 19 year student in the Nursing program at Cambrian College has not missed a beat, taking on the full-time role as team lead.
"I had to take a few days to even consider fully being on the team," Leonard acknowledged. "I had to think about it, especially this year, being in first year of nursing. It was hard for me to try and figure out how to balance school and curling."
Yet hers was a decision that she absolutely does not regret.
"It's gone better than expected," she said. "It's a matter of planning ahead of time, talking to all of your teachers, trying to figure out your schedule, way in advance." And when it comes to the on-ice product, Leonard is more than pleased with the progress, on a couple of different levels.
"I just think that, as a team, we've done so many bonspiels, practiced a lot, that all of us have grown, as a team, and individually as well."
The journey to Langley (B.C.) less than two weeks from now will mark the seventh consecutive appearance that Jacob Horgan will make at U21 nationals. While none of Scott Mitchell, Mitchell Cortello or Chase Dusessoy have attended the same event, all three have appeared at the Canadian U18 showdown.
"The U21's are a little bit longer event, and with ten end games, versus the original eight ends at U18," said Dusessoy, a native of Winnipeg and now 19 years of age. It's also a championship that he feels his team is more than ready to tackle, despite their limited time together (the rink of Tanner Horgan, Jacob Horgan, Max Cull and Maxime Blais represented Northern Ontario at nationals last January).
"We started the year off a little rocky, but now we're starting to peak, which is what we wanted to do," said Dusessoy. "We're peaking at the right time, for the events that we want to peak at."
And they have done so, playing to each other's strengths.
"In the past, with my previous teams, I've been on both a defensive team, and an offensive team," said Dusessoy. "Jake is more offense, which brings more rocks into play, which is what I have gotten used to the past two years. I like to stick with that, I like offense. Because there are more rocks in play, there are a lot more finesse shots, instead of just running the rocks up and down the sheet."
All of which suits Horgan just fine, who had to use every bit of his impressive curling experience to adjust to ice conditions in Hearst, at provincials, that were less than ideal. "We changed the way that we threw, just a tiny bit," noted the well-spoken 19 year old.
"The way we practice in Sudbury, and the way that we practice for most events, we try and throw a lot of rotation, and we try and throw it pretty positive, to try and take some of the early curl out of it. When we get ice conditions such as Hearst, with only about a foot of curl, and we throw with the idea to take curl out of it, we're left with no curl - and it's really hard to make shots like that."
"So what we did was change to get some of that early curl back in our releases."
It's also an adjustment that he does not expect to have to make at nationals. With his re-jigged roster, Horgan admits to feeling substantially less pressure than when he curled with his brother, especially after their team enjoyed early success at juniors, and into the stage where they competed for one final shot at gold, at this level, in 2019.
This year will be different.
"It's a pretty even field, I would say," suggested Horgan. "There is not a clear winner. There's not even a clear top three, or top six. Playoffs would be a huge accomplishment (for our team), a huge experience for the guys."
The 2020 New Holland Canadian Juniors will run from January 18th to 26th.
Meanwhile, Sudbury curler Lauren Rajala enjoyed the thrill of a lifetime, earlier this week, carrying the Canadian flag into the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Readers will recall that we chatted extensively with Rajala, in last week's column, about her upcoming competition, though she was unfortunately not able to disclose this particular extra bit of exciting news at the time.
Curling with Nathan Young, Emily Deschenes and Jaedon Neuert, Rajala and her Canadian teammates have come from behind in each of their first two games in Switzerland to earn victories.
Team Canada trailed the Russian Federation 4-1 heading into the seventh end, deadlocked the contest at 4-4 after eight, and scored three in the extra end for a 7-4 win. No extra end, but every bit as exciting on day two as Canada squanders a 3-0 lead, are down 4-3 after six, but need a steal of two in the eighth and final end to beat Poland 6-4, improving to 2-0.