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Giant step for McEwen

Top seed poised for run at Manitoba title

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There was some serious second-guessing and soul-searching. It's a given some brooms were likely busted in fits of fury. And you can bet there was a salty cuss word or two tossed in for flavour.

But in the end -- through the crushing last-rock losses that came to define their last couple of winters -- Mike McEwen will also insist there was growth, big-time growth, for the 30-year-old skip and his Assiniboine Memorial foursome.

And that, in part, explains why his squad -- including third B.J. Neufeld, second Matt Wozniak and lead Denni Neufeld -- has enjoyed a bust-out season that has them ranked No. 1 on the World and Manitoba Curling Tours, the Canadian Team Ranking System and now for next week's Safeway Championship in Beausejour.

What's the old saying about no pain, no gain?

"Last year the tough lumps and tough losses we did take said to us that we're not as good as we need to be," said McEwen Thursday at a press gathering unveiling the top five seeds for the provincial championship.

"Maybe it was a bit of a wake-up call to help us understand what the next step was that we needed to take. I don't think we knew instantly, but we've found a lot of things to work on. We're almost a completely different team. It's night and day from where we were a year ago.

"Our confidence, our demeanour, our patience... we're better technically. We're better in so many ways that I don't feel like we're the same team."

McEwen will admit the critical autopsies his team conducted on itself included everything from studying if there were deficiencies in their strategies, to their sweeping, scoreboard management and understanding their own team.

Whatever was involved, the results are obvious as McEwen & Co. have toppled some of the best on the planet this year -- Glenn Howard, Kevin Martin and Jeff Stoughton included -- while capturing two of the three Grand Slam titles held so far this season.

What's missing from their growing resumé is a provincial title -- one that slipped from their grasp last year in a loss in the final to the No. 2-seed and eight-time Manitoba champion Jeff Stoughton.

"We're pretty honoured and excited to be the top seed," McEwen said. "We've grown up dreaming of going to the Brier since we were little kids. This is one of those pieces of the puzzle that is still missing. I will say, though, that regardless of what happens in Beausejour it's not going to be a make or break it for us this season. We're very proud of what we've accomplished.

"Going back a few years, we always thought we could win it and we probably put a lot of pressure on ourselves to say this defines our season. Now we honestly believe we'd be a really good rep for Manitoba and maybe Manitoba's best chance in getting its first Brier (title) in a decade."

Stoughton will take a revamped squad into Beausejour with old friend Jon Mead and Reid Carruthers replacing Kevin Park and Rob Fowler alongside longtime lead Steve Gould. The Charleswood skip has lightened his competitive schedule this season, but still ranks third on the WCT tour earnings.

"We're thinking we've got our hands full," said Carruthers. "We're playing well and obviously (McEwen's foursome) is playing exceptionally well. But there are 30 other teams in this event, they're all good teams and most of them have been to this event before.

"But, remember, Jeff's an eight-time champ and he earned every one of them. As far as having a guy who's cool under pressure, THAT's the guy. Mike is a great skip as well. It's going to be a great provincials."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2011 C1

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