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Stoughton hangs 10 in Neepawa

Manitoba's greatest male curler off to Brier again

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NEEPAWA -- There seem to be two primary reasons why Jeff Stoughton wins the final game of the Manitoba men's curling championship like no one before him -- no one even close, in fact -- in the long and glorious curling history of this province.

First, no one in the Manitoba men's game ever -- and rivalled only by Jennifer Jones in the women's game -- is better under pressure and in the big game.

And second, precisely because he is so good when the lights are at their hottest, Stoughton's opponents over the years have seemed to wilt in the big game, shooting themselves in the foot before the 49-year-old Manitoba curling legend has even unholstered his weapon.

Stoughton had both things working for him at the Yellowhead Centre on Sunday and he needed all of it -- an early collapse by his opponent and a big shot by him late in the game -- to secure a remarkable 10th Manitoba men's curling championship in his 11th trip to the final.

Playing a plucky Sean Grassie team that was the only undefeated rink remaining in the 32-team field when the two squads hit the ice Sunday afternoon, Stoughton jumped out to a 3-0 second-end lead thanks to a couple of heavy draws by Grassie and then in the ninth authored a spectacularly thin double-takeout to extinguish any designs Grassie had on a comeback.

The final score went into the books as 7-4 but it was the other number that emerged from this game -- 10, as in titles for Stoughton -- that will best be remembered from this week.

To put that number in context, it is now exactly twice the number of provincial men's titles as Kerry Burtnyk, the next-winningest skip in Manitoba history.

And so amid the subdued jubilation that always seems to characterize Stoughton winning yet another curling championship in Manitoba, Stoughton was asked if he had a flavour for the history of what he had just accomplished.

"I guess when I retire or stop playing as competitively as I do, I think it's going to be very significant," said Stoughton. "But it's just a thrill to get back to the Brier and go back to Edmonton. We won it in '99 in Edmonton and it's going to be so much fun to go back there. We know the crowds are going to be huge."

It bears reminding that the last time Stoughton won a Manitoba men's curling championship -- in 2011 -- he went on to win the Brier and a world championship.

He's got a different lead these days in Mark Nichols, but the results have been just as dominating this winter, with Sunday's provincial title simply adding to the Canada Cup, Canadian Curling Trials berth and Grand Slam event that the team had already won.

But if it seems like just more of the same-old, same-old, the members of the Stoughton foursome say this one was special because of the adversity the team had to go through on the final weekend, as a virulent flu strain that had savaged many other teams in this event attacked their squad with a vengeance.

First it was Nichols, who got sick Friday night, got sicker Saturday and still wasn't well even Sunday as he hoisted the trophy. "The last time I ate anything," Nichols said late Sunday afternoon, "was Friday night."

From Nichols, the bug travelled to Mead and then finally to the team's fifth, Garth Smith. In the end, the only option was to gut it out -- literally. "We had a hard time even fielding a team on Saturday," said Mead. "And then to get to Sunday and play some of our best curling when we needed it, that's something special.

"We'll reflect back on this one as, 'Boy, that one was a grind to get through.'"

A loss to Grassie in the 1 vs. 1 game Saturday night meant the Stoughton foursome had to first get through their old rival Mike McEwen in Sunday morning's semifinal to get another chance at Grassie in the final.

Like Grassie would later in the day, McEwen had unforced misses early in the game against Stoughton and never could recover from a 4-1 deficit en route to a 5-3 Stoughton victory.

And then against Grassie, Stoughton got steals in the first and second ends to jump out to a 3-0 lead in what looked like it was going to be a rout.

But to his eternal credit, Grassie -- the sixth seed coming into this event and well down the list of teams most expected would still be playing Sunday -- battled back and appeared poised to score what would have been a game-tying steal in the ninth end.

But as he has done so often before, Stoughton found an escape route, manufacturing a double-takeout from a tight cluster of rocks on the four-foot with the last rock of the ninth end to transform that game-tying steal into a back-breaking deuce.

The result was short of the Cinderella finish he was looking for, but Grassie said afterward that there was consolation to be drawn from the effort his team showed. "A lot of guys might say, 'Okay, we're down 3-0 to maybe the best team in the world, that could be it.' But the guys hung in there and played really well...

"I think we proved to ourselves that we can play with these guys."

Stoughton will now represent Manitoba at the Brier in Edmonton, March 2-10.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2013 C1

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