VIRDEN -- This was the third time Chelsea Carey led her rink to the Manitoba Scotties final, and this third one was the charm, sealing her the provincial curling championship she's craved for so long.
And yet, in the minutes after Carey's 6-2 victory over Kerri Einarson on Sunday evening, the Fort Rouge Curling Club skip still felt a little numb. It had been such a grind to get there, playing five games in two days and four of them must-win. "I'm kind of in a daze," the new Manitoba champion said. "Once I get my hands on that (Team Manitoba) jacket, then it might sink in for me a little bit. It's just surreal right now."
This was a vital final pairing, the sort of matchup some Manitoba curling leaders quietly hoped to see: two spitfire skips, two young teams hungry for their first crack at a Canadian championship. It meant the promise of an entirely new set of Manitoba champions after two straight years with Jennifer Jones finishing at the top; it meant a chance for Carey to take the next step in a high-pressure season punctuated by the Olympic trials, and for Einarson to make her mark. Jones, who is preparing for the Olympics, skipped the event.
It was the first time Einarson, a provincial mixed champion, made it to a Scotties final. Skipping a freshly assembled team -- third Selena Kaatz and lead Kristin MacCuish were fresh out of junior -- she blazed undefeated through the round robin, turning heads in her team's hot pink jackets. She then polished her rising star when she threw a wild double-kill in the first-place Page playoff against Barb Spencer to earn a bye to the final.
So this Scotties, in this big and bright Tundra Oil and Gas Place arena, in this town of about 3,200 people who flooded the event with cheerful volunteers, announced itself as one to watch.
History may also record this bonspiel as the one where the Einarson team, which has Liz Fyfe at second, announced itself as one to watch.
"We did so well, and I'm so proud of the girls," the 26-year-old skip said of their run. "It proves that we deserve to be here. We may not have won, but I know that we will win in the future."
It all came down to a taut final game. Einarson struck first, taking a single point with the hammer in the first end. Carey blanked the second, and the third. She set the fourth end up pretty, and could have taken three, but her draw came in light, sticking in the red paint on the top of the 12-foot. Still, she took a deuce out of that end, and with it a 2-1 lead.
Carey would get that extra point back in the very next end, on a miss from Einarson: the East St. Paul skip's final stone bounced too hard off another rock and rolled out, handing Carey a steal of one. That seemed to shift the momentum: Einarson picked up a single after the break, and trailed 3-2 with three ends yet to play. Carey blanked the seventh, and -- yep -- blanked the eighth.
Then in the ninth end, Carey pounced. It was a big one, as the skip, lead Lindsay Titheridge, second Kristen Foster and third Kristy McDonald worked their way out of trouble: Foster hurled a bang-on double peel to clear the house, and after a timeout and a chat, McDonald locked down a key hit-and-roll to bury the shot rock. That opened the door for Carey to score three with her shot: She made it, and rose to a 6-2 lead.
After that, all Carey had to do was run Einarson out of rocks, and that's exactly what they did. Carey's first rock of the 10th end was the last one she'd have to throw before becoming the new Manitoba champion. "I'm just going 'breathe, breathe,' " Carey said of that last throw, a straight-ahead takeout. "Then when I let it go, I liked the throw. As soon as I could say 'clean,' I felt really good."
The final was the second win of the day for Carey, who first had to win a morning semifinal against veteran Barb Spencer. That game was a payback of sorts: At last year's championship in Stonewall, Spencer knocked Carey out in the second-place Page playoff game. This time around, the situation was reversed, as Carey nailed a deuce in the second end and earned a key steal in the seventh to stay in control. She sealed the win with a big four-point ninth end.
Still, Spencer made her exit as the most winning curler in the history of the provincial championship, soaring past Cathy Overton-Clapham's previous record with 98 wins.
Carey will now prepare to represent Manitoba at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Montreal next month.