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Stoughton's not sweating, he's laughing

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EDMONTON -- If Jeff Stoughton was the even the teeny-tiniest bit worried, he hid it well.

If the pressure of being this close to an Olympic berth -- he's now two wins shy of a trip to Vancouver in February -- was gnawing away at his innards, there was no evidence of it after a late-afternoon practice session at Rexall Place.

He repeatedly cracked wise with the media, often leaving a small scrum roaring at his wit. He made a joke about having Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike Kelly as his team's coach.

He even took a couple well-aimed shots at Glenn Howard, today's oppon­ent in the Canadian Olympic Curling Trials semifinal, after the Ontario skip's suggestion he was mentally ex­hausted prior to his loss to Stoughton in the '09 Brier semifinal.

"Oh, what an excuse, eh?" Stough­ton grinned. "It's the frickin' Brier semifinal... how could you possibly be mentally exhausted? They didn't come out as sharp as they were and made a couple of dumb calls in the second end and we took full advan­tage of it (scoring four) and it was still a last-rock game."

And after Stoughton spoke of how hard it was for his crew to regularly practise together -- what with him and lead Steve Gould in Winnipeg and Rob Fowler and Kevin Park liv­ing in Brandon -- a reporter teased him about his effort to reinforce the fact that Park, who also resides in Edmonton, was from the Wheat City to comply with Curl Manitoba's residency rules. But the Charleswood skip just grinned and added: "Yeah, that's for the Winnipeg paper. Get that in there, Ed; I'm counting on ya."

So... nervous? A wound-tight bundle of nerves? Hardly.

In fact, Stoughton was playing the underdog angle up big time after practice, gushing about the success of Howard and Kevin Martin, who awaits the winner of the semifinal.

But he also made no secret of his desire to finally cash in on his Olym­pic dream, what with this being his fourth trip to the trials and after los­ing in the final to Brad Gushue four years ago in Halifax.

"It's a different feel this year, because four years ago you're hoping and expecting to win," Stoughton said. "This time, we still hope to win, but no one expects us to win. It's a great position to be in.

"No one's giving us much of a chance and because everyone wants the Howard-Martin final, all the pressure's on them to perform at their best. We're coming in here as underdogs for sure and we'll milk that till the cows come home. We have to put that to our advantage. We're more relaxed. We know we can beat these guys any time we play them and we're just looking forward to a great game -- and it will be.

"All the pressure's on them because everyone expects them and Martin to go to the Olympics.

"No one expects Stoughton to go, except ourselves."

True, that. It's no secret that the Howard-Martin round-robin game in prime time Thursday night was the Roar of the Rings' marquee matchup.

And a Sunday final featuring the same two squads has been what curl­ing fans have been buzzing about all week, if not for months.

Why? Said Howard: "Just because there has been a nice rivalry for the last four or five years. We've been looked at as one and two. So it would be the Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier fight. That being said, we have to win the next one."

But Stoughton & Co. have their own plans. And if it doesn't serve up the hype of a Howard-Martin, Ali-Frazier tilt, so be it.

"What's wrong with a Martin­Stoughton final?" Stoughton asked.

"No one would expect it... except us."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

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