Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – The physical and mental grind of a national curling championship is really only something you can be prepared for after going through the ringer of one.
That's the case for veteran MacEwan Griffins women's skip Ashton Simard and second Andie Kurjata, who are both heading into their third Canadian Colleges Athletic Association national championship starting Friday morning in Fredericton, N.B.
There's no replacing that kind of experience, which certainly lays the groundwork for a potential podium finish for the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference champion Griffins.
"I think we're better prepared for this one because three of us are returning from last year, so we know what to expect," said Simard, whose rink finished fourth at nationals in Leduc last March. "You just have to be prepared to play the seven games and just be mentally prepared because it can be a really long event. You have to be ready for that and I think we'll be good."
Their preparations over the past calendar year have included more time in the gym to better prepare their bodies for the rigours of a bonspiel that features seven round robin games over the first four days.
"It was interesting talking to the young women on our team," said coach Brian Lupul who was collecting information for host broadcaster CBC. "They knew they needed to be in good physical shape, both physically and mentally, because you get fatigued going through the event. The other thing they learned is they can play with the top teams and they can win if they play well.
"That's what they did learn from going to the nationals last year."
MacEwan opens play on Friday against Douglas (6:30 a.m. MT) and Humber (2:30 p.m. MT) and will play Saturday against NAIT (6:30 a.m. MT) and Holland College (2:30 MT). Their round robin journey continues on Sunday against Fleming (10:30 a.m. MT) and UAlberta-Augustana (6:30 p.m. MT) before wrapping up on Monday against Fanshawe (10:30 a.m. MT).
If they finish amongst the top four teams, the Griffins will play in the Monday evening semifinals (5 p.m. MT) for a right to go for gold on Tuesday (10:30 a.m. MT).
"The good news and the bad news is everybody's going to miss some shots, it's how they react to it," said Lupul. "The ice is going to be as good because it's the same icemaker who did the Brier in Brandon. The ice is going to be exceptionally good. I think that's going to sit well with us."
That's because curling rocks behave differently on arena ice, curling more the less they rotate. It's the teams which fail to adjust to that who will be fighting it throughout the weekend.
"The less you rotate it, the more it will curl," explained Simard. "On arena ice, you want between three and four rotations down the ice. Our team's pretty good at throwing that.
"Normally you'd have to try to spin it more, but we've competed on arena ice already, so we have that extra rotation already."
Another piece of experience in their arsenal. Add that to the chip they have on their shoulder after narrowly losing the bronze medal to cross-town rival NAIT last year and the Griffins have plenty of incentive to hit the podium.
"It's definitely a fuel to try to win a medal this year," said Simard. "First, we have to make sure we qualify for the playoffs. Once we're in there, we're going to go for that gold.
"We know we can compete with anyone who's there, if we play our game. There are two extra ends, so it's a little bit longer and anything can happen."
That's a good thing for a Griffins team that has shown a penchant for amazing rallies this season, including coming back from 5-0 down to beat UAlberta-Augustana 8-5 in last month's ACAC Championship.
"Nothing seems to faze them," said Lupul. "I've been with a team where we've gone in as somewhat the favourite and it didn't work out. We'd lose the first game and falter as a team. This team, it doesn't bother them. They're down three or four and they don't give up. The skip, especially, she just seems to have a stone cold heart. Nothing seems to bother her. I haven't seen her upset ever."
That sets the tone for the rest of the rink to follow and with the chemistry the team has, it all works seamlessly into putting them at the top of their game.
"They do get along and they like playing with one another, and that's important," said Lupul. "We have a variety of personalities that work really well together. The reason they're so successful is they do get along."
And trust each other. Simard, Wells and Kurjata all cracked the ACAC's All-Conference team, while Hagglund and Bartz have tons of experience all the way back to junior. In short, they are all capable of making shots.
"It's definitely huge to know when you put the broom down they're going to be close one way or another," said Simard. "It's definitely a big confidence boost. We can definitely play more aggressive because we're making more shots. It takes a little pressure off of me – it makes my shots simpler."