Take a poll of the long list of Manitoba curling champions and there will be one clear consensus -- wearing this province's colours at a national event is as good at it gets in the sport.
Count Shannon Birchard, Manitoba's defending junior women's champion, among the latest to concur.
"You know, it's hard to describe... to wear the buffalo on your back is one of the most amazing experiences in the world," began Birchard, who began the defence of her title Thursday with the opening of the 2013 Canola Junior Women's Provincial Championship at the Brandon Curling Club.
"Coming out of Manitoba you feel very proud because you know how many teams come from here. Some real legends have come out of this province."
Birchard and her St. Vital foursome came within one game last winter of adding another juicy title to their resumé: Canadian champion. At last year's nationals, Birchard finished 10-2 in the round robin before falling 12-6 to Alberta in the final.
During the off-season Birchard's team underwent an overhaul as Selena Kaatz and Kristin MacCuish left to form their own team, also out of St. Vital. Ironically, the Kaatz squad entered this year's provincials as the top seed with Birchard ranked second.
Birchard then recruited Nicole Sigvaldason and Sheyna Andries to join herself and Mariah Mondor and the resulting chemistry was instant magic. Birchard's new foursome won the first bonspiel they played in this year, the Deer Lodge Ice Breaker, and then captured the first berth spot of the 2012-13 season.
"(The off-season lineup change) is just one of those things that happens in curling all the time," said Birchard. "They're a great team, too, and I wish them the best."
Asked what makes her new squad work, Birchard said: "We just really understand each other and how each person throws, each of our personalities and how to act around each other on and off ice. We keep each other level-headed on the ice."
Birchard & Co. opened with a 10-4 win over Carly Angers of Miami and was on the ice Thursday night in the late draw. And her goal remains the same this January as it did a year ago -- to wear the buffalo one more time.
"That's our main goal," she said. "Going to the nationals was an amazing experience. We had mixed feelings when it was over and we finished second. We were definitely disappointed because our goal was to win nationals and go to the worlds.
"But you have to look at the big picture and realize that coming in second is still a huge accomplishment. We've taken it as a learning experience and have talked about almost every shot in that game. We've learned from it and hopefully we don't make those mistakes again. I'll take that experience with me for the rest of my life because the things I learned there were incredible."
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Day 1 results C5