Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
LLOYDMINSTER – Massive improvement shown by the MacEwan men's team highlighted the Griffins' season-opening weekend of Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference competition.
Already, they have more wins than they had all last season after going 4-2 at the ACAC Fall Regional at the Lloydminster Curling Club over the weekend. Last season, the first-year rink went 3-9 combined in two regional events and failed to qualify for the ACAC Championship.
But now they're in a three-way tie for first and, at times during the weekend, even looked like the team to beat – racing out to a 4-0 start before dropping their last two games.
"The men, we were hugely surprised," said assistant coach Brian Lupul. "The improvement was phenomenal. Last year, they weren't really great. This year, they looked like a team. Tom (Kitagawa, head coach) does a lot of work with them. Kudos to Tom."
The squad of skip Riley Ross, third Jordan Geiger, second Brandon Rubisch and lead Joel MacDonald beat Lakeland 8-4 and topped Olds 8-1 to open the bonspiel on Friday. They then defeated SAIT 8-4 and RDC 8-1 on Saturday and woke up Sunday morning aiming to complete an unbeaten run. Although they dropped their final two games – 7-0 to NAIT and 5-4 to Concordia – the positive vibes are still there for the foursome.
"It's a great start. We've won more games this year than we did in two playoffs last year," said Kitagawa. "They're pretty pumped up. As much as we lost the last two games, they're positive."
He noted their improvement has been a process meted out over facing tough competition all fall.
"They've been steadily improving over the last couple of league games and then we went into a bonspiel and the level of game play continued to get better and better," said Kitagawa. "It carried through into the first regional.
"There's still room for things we need to work on," he added. "The strategy side is continually evolving. Riley is a relatively young player. He's elevating (his game). I liken it to being a high school basketball player and then jumping into the post-secondary group."
MacEwan is tied for top spot in the men's standings with fellow 4-2 teams NAIT and Concordia, while SAIT, Red Deer College and Lakeland are all still in the mix at 3-3. Olds is last at 0-6. Those marks will toll over and combine with their round-robin records at the ACAC Winter Regional Jan. 24-26 at Avonair Curling Club, out of which the top-four teams will qualify for the ACAC Championship in Lac La Biche, Alta. on Feb. 28-29.
MacEwan has more work to do in the women's division after riding a roller-coaster of inconsistent play to a 3-3 record at the Fall Regional. Despite entering the event as the favourites – returning four members from the defending ACAC championship rink that won a Canadian Colleges Athletic Association Championship silver medal last March – they struggled out of the gate, going 0-2 on Friday after losses to Concordia (7-3) and RDC (7-5).
"We started really slow and we did a bit of a roster change," said Lupul.
While skip Ashton Simard and second Andie Kurjata stayed in place, third Erin Wells was bumped to lead and rookie Megan Berg was elevated from alternate to third. They won two in a row with the new lineup on Saturday, topping UAlberta-Augustana 6-5 in a rematch of the 2018 ACAC final and smoking NAIT 10-2. But, before the night was done, they were on the wrong end of a 9-2 loss to Lakeland.
So Lupul switched things up again, bringing Taitan Hagglund back into the lineup to play lead instead of Wells. And they won their final game on Sunday, 6-4 over Olds.
"To me it's one of those things where someone doesn't have a great weekend," said Kitagawa. "It happens in all sports."
Things didn't go perfectly for Ashton Simard's (right) reigning ACAC Championship rink as they rode a roller-coaster through the Fall Regional with a 3-3 record, but they're still in contention to see their season continue past the regional stage (CCAA photo).
Added Lupul: "In the past in another year, I swapped around some mixed players. It worked. At first the players weren't so sure, but when they started winning, it was 'hey, we like this idea.' "
Lupul noted different ice was certainly a challenge for the team, especially in Sunday's match when they got the outside sheet.
"The sheet we played on today looked like old-style curling," he said. "There was some stuff in there that reminded me the building was tilted a little bit on the outside sheet. It was tricky.
"We've got a really experienced skip for the women and she's good," he added of Simard. "And this is her last year. So, she did really, really well. Megan, our first-year player ,stepped up and played awesome. She's a real shooter, for sure. She's got a future and she's only 18."
In the women's standings, the Griffins share third place at 3-3 with RDC and NAIT, behind 5-1 UAA and 4-2 Concordia. Olds (2-4) and Lakeland (1-5) are still alive but will need strong Winter Regional performances to qualify for the ACAC Championship.
Finally, the Griffins' mixed team of skip Rebecca Bartz, third Brandt Holt, second Brennin Turner, lead Zale Zabolotniuk and alternate Rachael Hansen is tied for second in the standings with fellow 3-2 teams NAIT and UAA behind Lakeland (4-1). RDC (2-3) and SAIT (0-5) round out the standings.
The Griffins had solid moments followed by somewhat fatigued play. They whipped NAIT 10-4 and edged Lakeland 7-6 on Friday before losing 7-4 to UAA and hammering SAIT 12-4 on Saturday. MacEwan then closed with a 7-2 loss to Red Deer College on Sunday.
"In the first two games they played like no tomorrow," said Kitagawa. "Game 3 kind of sagged, Game 4 came back and then I think they got tired. They haven't played a lot and have had a lot of school work. They were a little tired, I felt, this morning."
All in all, it was a solid competition for the Griffins, who have teams entered in all three ACAC divisions for the first time since the 2011-12 season.
"Normally we only have two teams and now we have three, so we were trying to put our head on a swivel sometimes," said Lupul. "One of the things we found is the competition's got really, really good now. We used to get three or four top teams and then there are others that could beat you, but now probably on any given game the other teams could beat you.
"It's hugely positive for the conference."