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McEwen rink wins Prairie Classic's battle of Manitoba

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PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE, Manitoba – The battle of Manitoba came early in the Canad Inns Prairie Classic playoffs on Monday morning, as veteran skip Jeff Stoughton threw and lost against fellow Winnipegger Mike McEwen and his rink.

Stoughton, the top-ranked player on the World Curling Tour’s merit points ranking, dropped the quarterfinal game 6-3. The score might have been tighter than that, but for the fact that Stoughton stumbled in the fourth end to give McEwen an opportunity to steal the hammer for two points.

The loss caps off an up-and-down tournament for Stoughton, third Jon Mead, second Reid Carruthers and lead Mark Nichols. They stumbled out of the gate with an upset loss to Russia’s Team Evgeny Arkhipov, but then beat Saskatchewan’s Team Jeff Hartung and Newfoundland’s Team Brad Gushue, which struggled mightily at the Prairie Classic.

But in B-side play, the Stoughton rink fell to reigning Brier champion Brad Jacobs and his team, leaving them in the unenviable position of having to win three games on Sunday to survive into the playoffs. The fact that they did just that – throwing their way past China’s Rui Liu, Winnipeg’s Richard Daneault and Minnesota’s Jeff Shuster – is a sign of the team’s character, the skipper said.

"We could have hung our heads down, but we toughed it out and qualified," Stoughton said after the final loss. "I just came up flat today."

McEwen, who won the popular Portage la Prairie tournament in 2010 and 2011, will now prepare to face young Saskatchewan skip Brock Virtue in the semifinal.

Team Virtue, which dispatched Toronto’s Team Mark Kean on Monday morning to advance to the semifinal match, is the only team to make the Prairie Classic playoffs that is not preparing for either the Olympic pre-trials in Kitchener, Ont. next month, or the Roar of the Rings Olympic trials at MTS Centre in December.

That semifinal game, which begins at 2 p.m., gives Virtue a second crack at tackling McEwen.

The Manitoban rink took Team Virtue down on Saturday night, even after Virtue had powered through Team Jacobs and curling icon Glenn Howard to get to the A-side finals.

That game started off with a bang, as McEwen managed to lay four points against Virtue in the first end. The rest of the game was tighter, but Virtue’s rink couldn’t recover from that disastrous first, and eventually lost 8-3 in six ends. So Virtue agreed he was hungry to get a second chance to press the McEwen gang. "They’re still playing very good," he said.

The second semifinal game slated for 2 p.m. on Monday will see 2012 Prairie Classic champion, Alberta skip Kevin Koe and his rink, tackle Team Glenn Howard for a pass to the final game. Koe downed Jacobs on Monday morning, 7-6 in ab extra end.

Howard’s game against Team John Morris went into the bonus end too, as Morris – newly installed as skip of Jim Cotter’s longtime Kelowna, B.C.-based team -- fell behind 5-3 going into the seventh. Morris and crew then blanked the seventh end and hung onto the hammer for the eighth, where they picked up two points to force Howard to one more frame.

They couldn’t steal the hammer in the extra end, though, and Team Howard picked up a single to win the game.

The two semifinal winners will face off in the Prairie Classic final at 6 p.m. on Monday, battling for the lion’s share of the $60,000 purse. That game will be broadcast live on Shaw TV.

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