NEEPAWA — Right from the start, most observers were expecting Jeff Stoughton would be playing Mike McEwen at the Manitoba men’s curling championship Sunday.
But few were expecting the two top seeds would be meeting in Sunday’s Page playoff semifinal (9 a.m., Sportsnet), rather than the final.
And no one was expecting it would be for the right to play Sean Grassie — a man much better known as an author than a curler — for the Manitoba men’s title.
A wild 1 vs. 1 playoff Saturday came to a wild conclusion as Grassie — author of a new book on the MCA Bonspiel — also authored a quirky game-winning deuce with the final rock of the final end to defeat Stoughton and propel Grassie’s young team — third Corey Chambers, second Kody Janzen and lead Stu Shiells — to Sunday's provincial final (1:30 p.m., Sportsnet).
The victory means Grassie, who came into this event as the sixth seed and with few expecting him to still be playing on Sunday, heads into Sunday as the last remaining undefeated team in this field.
A berth in the Brier and the national spotlight are one win away for a man who, until Saturday night, had never before curled on anything more glamorous than public-access TV.
"I thought the guys handled the nerves great today. Playing a big game, on national TV, they hung in there really well," said Grassie, who also beat defending champion Rob Fowler Saturday morning to advance to Saturday night’s 1 vs. 1 game.
Grassie — the 2008 Canadian Mixed champion — was asked if it had yet sunk in just how close he was to competing in a much bigger national curling event. "It probably hasn’t sunk in quite yet — either later tonight or tomorrow, I’m guessing."
With Stoughton leading 5-4 and Grassie holding the hammer in the 10th end, Stoughton was lying shot and welded amid a cluster of rocks on the back 12-foot as Grassie went to throw his last.
At Chambers’ urging, Grassie played the most delicate of hit-and-rolls, rolling his shooter into the 8-foot for shot and then jiggling the pile in just such a way that a second Grassie stone squirted in as well for the game-winner.
Hats off, said Stoughton, who is usually the author rather than the victim of such last-shot heroics at this event.
"He made two great shots," said Stoughton. "He made a great corner freeze and then makes just a great hit and roll with his last one. Not much you can do — he played really well."
Stoughton advanced to Saturday night’s 1 vs. 1 game with a win over Terry McNamee earlier Saturday, but was facing adversity all day long as a flu bug that has decimated this event — including Grassie’s team on Friday — finally got hold of his squad.
Stoughton lead Mark Nichols did not finish the game against McNamee and was replaced by fifth Garth Smith. But then Smith got sick too and was unable to play Saturday night, leaving Stoughton playing with an ailing Nichols — and also a sick third Jon Mead — against Grassie.
Stoughton said only he and second Reid Carruthers were still healthy last night.
Meanwhile, McEwen — who with his back to the wall rattled off three must-wins Saturday, including eliminating defending champion Rob Fowler in Saturday night’s 2 vs. 2 game — was counting himself lucky, and not just because his team had survived a gruelling day to play in Sunday morning’s semifinal against his old nemesis Stoughton.
"Players are dropping like flies out there, so we feel fortunate to not have that affect us," said McEwen, who also eliminated Dennis Bohn and McNamee earlier Saturday.
"It feels like we’re playing pretty well, so hopefully we’re healthy for one more day... I guess we’re a team that plays better with our backs to the wall. I guess we needed that sense of urgency."
McEwen lost the 2010 and 2011 provincial finals to Stoughton and the 2012 final to Fowler.