THIS time, as he heads into the provincial junior curling championship, Matt Dunstone feels more confident, as he must to bear the weight of a bigger target.
This is just one example of how things change when you are the reigning Canadian champion.
"Without a doubt, we know it's going to be a lot tougher," the 18-year-old Winnipeg skip said on Thursday, as he prepared to defend his provincial title at the Portage Curling Club, beginning this weekend. "People will bring their A-game against us. Last year, we kinda flew under the radar. This year, we're right in the middle of everyone else's radar. We all know that, there's no hiding that. It's a different mindset."
A different mindset, yes. But life is different now, ever since the Dunstone rink rolled through last year's Canola Junior Men's Provincial Championship and curled their way to a Canadian title after that. The foursome, which includes third Colton Lott, second Daniel Grant and lead Brendan Maccuish, got to see the Olympic preparations in Sochi, where they won a world junior bronze earlier this year. They got invited to a Jets game. They signed autographs for fans.
Plus, the skip gets recognized now, a bit, and the first time it happened he was a little taken aback. How many other first-year University of Manitoba students get to experience something like that?
"It was definitely unexpected," Dunstone said, before heading out to the championship's opening banquet on Thursday. "It was a pretty cool feeling, to be honest."
But all the success of the last season is in the past. In Portage la Prairie this week, Dunstone must lead his rink through this new test: Between eligibility age and stiff competition, only a handful of junior men's skips have ever earned back-to-back Manitoban championships. Daley Peters was the last to do it in 2004-05, and before that Ryan Fry completed the feat in 1996-97.
On the other hand, consider the Dunstone team this season won every bonspiel they played except for two. Dunstone reports his rink's record at 38-2, and they sit atop the Manitoba junior curling tour standings with 54 points; Jordan Smith sits second with 42. They're playing as well as a defending champion should.
Still, if Dunstone learned one thing from his team's big run last year, it was how luck conspired with skill to get them there. The pick that went their way, the little breaks that fell in their favour and changed the whole face of a game. "It takes a lot of work to get there, but a lot of things have to fall into your arms for (a championship) to happen," he said. "Besides playing at the highest level, a lot of things fall into place for you."
It's true, though, you work to make your own luck. This season, that process began off the sheet, when Sport Manitoba awarded the Dunstone team a bursary to Focus Fitness. There, sweating next to the occasional Jets player at MTS Iceplex, Dunstone and his teammates worked out with Jeff Stoughton lead Mark Nichols. They worked on building up their legs, adding core strength -- the kind of fitness that in curling is becoming impossible to ignore.
"I think it's helped me mentally, mostly," Dunstone said. "Working out has made me feel better. I even go out to games now more confident."