NEEPAWA -- They never did entirely find the A-game that carried them to a Manitoba men's curling championship last year.
And then, at the worst possible time, they got sick.
In the end, it was all just too much to overcome here this weekend for a Rob Fowler foursome that was seeking to become the first men's team other than Jeff Stoughton to repeat as Manitoba curling champion since Vic Peters won back-to-back titles in 1992-93.
"We had an up-and-down week and it's really sad to end it on that note. If we'd had our full squad our there, I know we would have had a better chance to win," said Fowler, referencing a flu bug that caught lead Derek Samagalski and second Richard Daneault on Saturday and was so bad for third Allan Lyburn Saturday night that it chased him out of the team's elimination 8-1 loss to Mike McEwen in the 2 vs. 2 game.
Down 6-1 and playing the sixth end with just three players, Fowler gave up two more to McEwen to prompt the handshakes and officially end the reign of the Brandon foursome as Manitoba champs.
Fowler said he felt like his squad made the best of a bad situation in Neepawa.
"In a lot of ways, I feel like we got all we could out of the week we had... I would say we had our B-plus game, at best, all week," he said. "To get where we did shows a little bit of character on our team.
"Because we could have easily been out probably sometime Friday, or even earlier today."
-- -- --
Saturday night's win over Fowler propelled McEwen to this morning's semifinal against Jeff Stoughton, but McEwen said it was the loss to Fowler on the opening draw of the playoffs Friday night that may yet prove to be his team's turning point here this weekend.
McEwen said Saturday that his team had a frank exchange of views in a team meeting they called Friday night after the loss to Fowler left them facing the daunting prospect of having to win five games in a row here this weekend if they're going to win their first provincial title.
"We probably needed to be fired up a little bit," said McEwen.
"We got kind of lackadaisical in the middle half against Fowler (Friday). We didn't want to see that happen again...
"We kind of had it out a little bit (during the team meeting). Everybody threw a (verbal) punch here and there. We tried not to take it personally. We got kind of amped up. Our sports (psychologist Cal Botterill) said the same thing. I guess we're a team that kind of needs a little bit of fire sometimes -- controlled -- but we need it sometimes to play better...
"We probably play better mad, to be honest -- as long as we're talking.
"That's the problem, though -- when we're not talking and we're mad, that gets kind of dicey out there. A little bit of fire, as long as we're talking, that's something that works for our team."
It's working alright. McEwen won three in a row yesterday and now needs just two more victories today to finally take down a championship that has been denied him in each of the last three Manitoba finals.
-- -- --
The Manitoba Curling Media Association announced its all-star selections prior to Saturday night's draw.
Named to the 2013 Safeway Championship all-star team were: Jeff Stoughton lead Mark Nichols; Sean Grassie second Kody Janzen; Stoughton third Jon Mead; and Grassie at skip.