PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE -- We are living in a golden era of women's curling in Manitoba and it will be glittering in all its glory this week.
The Manitoba Scotties Tournament of Hearts gets underway at the PCU Centre this morning in what promises to be a showcase of just how deep Manitoba women's curling has become.
The top three seeds this week -- Jennifer Jones, Cathy Overton-Clapham and Chelsea Carey -- also just happen to be among the top three teams in the world right now.
And whichever one wins on Sunday -- it almost certainly will be one of those three -- will instantly be annointed among the favourites to also win next month at the national Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Red Deer, Alta.
"You look at how the teams are playing on the cash tour; everyone is performing so well," Jones said Tuesday as the teams got their first look at the ice in a practice session. "We'll have to go out and play well and hopefully good things will happen."
Much of the public's attention this week will surely be riveted on the ongoing rivalry between former teammates Jones and Overton-Clapham, who had a very public falling out last year when Jones fired Overton-Clapham as her third.
But those two teams are in different round-robin pools this week and the earliest they could meet is in the playoffs on Saturday. Overton-Clapham said Tuesday that she's more motivated to win this year with new teammates than in settling a score with an old one.
"They're young and they're so excited to be here," said Overton-Clapham, "that it's really gotten me more excited, too."
So who will win this week? Here's how I break down the field:
-- THE FAVOURITE (2-1): JENNIFER JONES, ST. VITAL -- Jones is returning to the Manitoba provincials for the first time since 2008. The intervening years have seen her win three Canadian women's titles and almost win a fourth last year, falling to Amber Holland in the Canadian final.
She's not only the best skip in Manitoba, she's the best in Canada and the world, too.
And she's got an all-star cast behind her in third Kaitlyn Lawes, second Jill Officer and lead Dawn Askin.
But there is a wrinkle this year. After taking the winter off to have a baby, Officer will curl in her first competitive event here this week and do it after the grand total of two weeks of practise. You have to wonder about the state of her mechanics, her draw weight and -- perhaps of most concern -- her stamina. Officer is widely regarded as the premier sweeper in the women's game and a lot of those thin-margin shots Jones has made over the years have come only after Officer swept to concrete.
The skip will have to be even sharper than usual this week if she's going to get back to the national stage.
-- THE OTHER ONES (5-2): CATHY OVERTON-CLAPHAM, FORT ROUGE, CHELSEA CAREY, MORDEN -- Overton-Clapham is nothing less than the winningest female curler in the history of Manitoba and she proved once again last year -- with a team inferior to the one she will have this week -- that she can win this thing all on her own.
She is magic in the big game and seems to have found new life this season, sitting second on the World Curling Tour money list with a team of youngsters -- third Jenna Loder, second Ashley Howard and lead Breanne Meakin -- who are roughly half her age.
Carey won just about everything but the provincial title last year, getting her heart broken by Overton-Clapham in the 2011 final. She's back with the same squad again this year -- third Kristy Jenion, second Kristen Foster and lead Lindsay Titheridge -- but comes into this year's provincials off a mediocre cashspiel season.
No one has paid more dues in this game than Jenion, who has lost three provincial finals over the years and is long overdue to actually win a provincial title. But if she finally does win it this year, it will be against the toughest field she's ever faced.
-- THE DARK HORSE (10-1): JILL THURSTON, GRANITE -- Thurston doesn't travel much on the cash circuit and generally flies well beneath the radar.
But she's good enough to win, as she proved in 2010. And she she's got an especially deep young team this year. Third Kerri Einarson (nee Flett) has made waves at this event a couple of times before and is a Manitoba mixed champion. Lead Sarah Wazney won a Canadian junior title with Kaitlyn Lawes in 2008. And second Kendra Georges won a Canadian mixed title with Sean Grassie in 2009.
Add to that the fact Thurston will curl in the shallower of two round-robin pools this week and if you're looking for a team other than the Big 3 to win, she's your pick.
-- YOUNG GUN (15-1): MICHELLE MONTFORD, ASSINIBOINE MEMORIAL -- Montford has a young and talented team that stunned everyone with a standout performance in their rookie Scotties in 2011. They finished out of the playoffs at 4-3 but could have advanced with a win in their final game. They will be better this year for the experience.
-- THE PACK (20-1): BARB SPENCER, FORT ROUGE; JANET HARVEY, ASSINIBOINE MEMORIAL; DARCY ROBERTSON, FORT ROUGE; KIM LINK, EAST ST. PAUL -- Harvey is a three-time Manitoba women's champion, winning last in 2006. Sisters Spencer and Robertson have also won three Manitoba women's titles, winning last in 2009.
Link lost the semifinal in 2010 that propelled Thurston to an eventual Manitoba title and always seems to be competitive at this event.
That tells you these women still know how to win. But it's also not coincidental that the most recent provincial titles for Harvey, Spencer and Robertson came in years when Jennifer Jones was the defending Canadian champion and not taking part in the provincials.
Add Jones, Overton-Clapham and Carey to this year's field and these four teams look overmatched.
-- ALSO-RANS (40-1): LISA DERIVIERE, MIAMI: LORI FORBES, THE PAS; TERRY URSEL, PLUMAS; LISA MENARD, DAUPHIN; KELSEY RUSSILL, BRANDON; KELSEY BOETTCHER, STONEWALL; LIZA PARK, BRANDON
-- PREDICTION: Jones has, by far, the shallower of two round-robin pools to contend with this week. She should go 7-0 -- at worst 6-1 -- in the round robin and it would take just this side of a miracle for her not to be playing in the coveted 1 vs. 1 Page playoff game come Saturday night.
Overton-Clapham and Carey, on the other hand, are stuck together in the other pool and regardless of which of those two teams plays Jones in the 1 vs. 1 game -- and it will be one or the other -- they will have been through a battle to get there.
The provincial final everyone wants to see is a rematch of old rivals in Jones and Overton-Clapham. I think they're going to get their wish -- and I think it is going to be a game for the ages.
Jones 6 Overton-Clapham 5 (extra end)