Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
OLDS, Alta. – Down 5-0 through five ends in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference women's final, it would have been easy for the MacEwan Griffins to fold their tents.
Most teams wouldn't overcome such a daunting mental hurdle.
But Ashton Simard's rink isn't just any team.
They took four in the sixth end, stole another four in the seventh and claimed the sixth ACAC women's banner in Griffins history with an 8-5 win over the UAlberta-Augustana Vikings on Sunday.
"The girls are very resilient, mentally tough, never say die," said Griffins head coach Tom Kitagawa. "We were down 5-0 and came back to win. When a team does that, that really shows a lot of mental strength, not just 'OK, we've lost this one,' and kind of cave. We just kept plugging away, plugging away."
Simard – who was named ACAC women's curler of the year on Sunday – and her rink of third Erin Wells, second Andie Kurjata and alternating leads Taitan Hagglund and Rebecca Bartz somehow refused to quit, a trademark of the veteran team that relies on chemistry and patience.
"It's extremely hard," said Simard of digging deep to overcome such a deficit. "It's really frustrating when you're not curling the way you should or the breaks aren't going your way. I was pretty proud of the team for the bounce back that we had."
As a result, they captured MacEwan's first women's title since 2016 and have qualified for the Canadian Colleges Athletic Conference championship in Fredericton, N.B. March 15-19. Griffins women's rinks have also previously claimed the ACAC Championship in 1993, 2005, 2010 and 2014.
"It's a great feeling, especially coming so close last year and winning it a couple of years ago, so this year meant a lot," said Simard, whose rink lost in the ACAC final in 2018. "For the record we had, we knew we could accomplish it, so actually doing it just felt great."
They were the favourites entering the weekend in Olds with an 11-1 record out of two regional events, but lost their first game (5-4 to UAlberta-Augustana in an extra end). After beating Red Deer College 8-3 and taking down NAIT 7-6 in an extra end to close out the round robin, they qualified for the 1-2 page playoff game in second.
But again, they fell short against the pesky Vikings, who finished fourth in the regional events, but caught fire when it counted most and made the final with a 10-6 triumph.
That meant the Griffins had to get back to the final by surviving a tight semifinal, taking two in the last end to beat RDC 8-7.
"We were definitely disappointed to lose that 1-2, but we knew what we had and we knew what we were capable of," said Simard.
"We came out good (in the semifinal) and went up a bunch of points, but then we let Red Deer back in and had to take two in the eighth to win. We were always in it and we knew if we made the right shots we could make the gold medal."
A day later, they leaned on that same resiliency to rally against a Vikings team that had beaten them twice before on the same weekend. It's hard to have belief in the face of that, but they relied on a steady process of coming back.
"Being down 5-0 after five, we wanted to make sure we got a deuce in six, so we could try and pull in," said Simard. "We made a couple of shots, they missed a couple and we ended up getting four, so we were only down by one, which gave us all the momentum.
"We started making some shots, stole another four in seven, so we were three-up coming home. From there on, it was just execution."
So, the Griffins will return to nationals a year after coming up a shot shy of the bronze medal in a narrow loss to NAIT at the 2018 CCAA championship in Leduc.
"Going back to nationals, we came within one rock of winning the bronze last year and I think the front end this year might be a little stronger mentally and technically," said Kitagawa. "All weekend, Taitan and Rebecca (alternated)."
Add that to the mental fortitude that they so obviously have and the sky's the limit.
"I think we're able to go compete for a medal and hopefully bring home that gold," said Simard. "Definitely, we're capable to making playoffs and we'll see what happens."
LAST ROCKS … Simard, Wells and Kurjata were named ACAC all-stars at the skip, third and second positions during the championship banquet on Friday.