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It's Cathy O's to lose

Of the Big Three, Overton-Clapham looks like provincial Scotties winner

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Two of the best women's curling teams in Canada are not going to win a Manitoba championship this season -- because a third one almost certainly will.

There has perhaps never been the kind of depth in Manitoba women's curling that we see today, and the current situation is reminiscent of the days when Manitoba men's curling was dominated by the Big Three of Kerry Burtnyk, Jeff Stoughton and Vic Peters.


These days, the Big Three in Manitoba are elite women's curling teams skipped by five-time Canadian champion Cathy Overton-Clapham, four-time Canadian champion Jennifer Jones and Chelsea Carey, whose team had a breakout season on the cash tour in 2010-11 and finished the winter ranked fifth in the country on the Canadian Curling Association's points-based ranking system.

Any one of those teams would be favoured this winter to win just about any other province in Canada, with the possible exception of Alberta, where Olympic medallists Cheryl Bernard and Shannon Kleibrink remain dominating national presences.

Yet at least two of the Big Three Manitoba teams will be watching next February's national Scotties Tournament of Hearts from Red Deer on television -- and at least one of them won't even advance to the provincial final.

In a province that was dominated by Connie Laliberte through the '80s and '90s and dominated by Jennifer Jones for the last decade, Manitoba suddenly finds itself with the deepest pool of elite competitive curlers anywhere in Canada.

And at the moment, there is no hotter team -- not here, not in Canada, not even in the world -- than Overton-Clapham, the defending Manitoba women's champion, who is tops on the World Curling Tour money list this week following yet another playoff performance last weekend at a Grand Slam event at the Fort Rouge Curling Club.

In four events on the WCT this season, Overton-Clapham and her new young foursome -- third Jenna Loder, second Ashley Howard and lead Breanne Meakin -- have won a Grand Slam event in Calgary, made the semifinals of the Slam event here and made the playoffs of another big event in Regina.

Put it all together and the Overton-Clapham team has won more money than any team in the world, vaulting over Russia's Liudmilla Privivkova this week to take over top spot.

It is a remarkable start for yet another new team for Overton-Clapham, who authored perhaps the best story in Canadian curling last year when, after getting abruptly fired by Jones as the third on Team Canada, she cobbled together a makeshift team at the last moment and took them all the way to the national Scotties in Charlottetown.

But that Cinderella story ended with a dismal 4-7 performance in P.E.I. and the off-season saw both third Karen Porritt and second Leslie Wilson leave the team, to be replaced this season by a former Canadian junior champ in Jenna Loder and a former New Brunswick junior champ in Ashley Howard, who also happens to be the daughter of Olympic gold medallist Russ Howard.

The book says it takes awhile for a new team to find some chemistry, and with Howard, Loder and Meakin all under 24, you'd expect a learning curve too.

But it's been the opposite story for an Overton-Claphm team that is 21-8 on tour so far this fall and would have been in the final at Fort Rouge last Monday had it not been for a last-rock, extra-end in-off shot by eventual champion Renee Sonnenberg that eliminated them in the semifinal.

"I've just lucked out and had some good players to play with," Overton-Clapham said Wednesday. "It's been really exciting this year playing with some great young girls.

"We have a lot of fun together and that maybe shows up on the ice."

It's been a bit less fun this fall -- at least so far -- for Jones and Carey.

Jones, who's been curling with Quebec's Joelle Sabourin and regular fifth Jennifer Clark-Rouire in place of a pregnant Jill Officer, picked up an early season win in Oslo and made the playoffs last weekend in Winnipeg, but is currently an uncharacteristic 11th on the money list. Officer is due in early December and is expected to return to the team in time for the Manitoba provincials at the end of January.

And Carey, who dominated the cash tour last season and owned top spot for much of it, is struggling this season to find traction, still looking for her first bonspiel win and languishing in 22nd spot on the money list.

But it's still very early days and you cannot help but get the feeling that we're going to see a three-way race to a provincial women's title this winter -- and maybe more than three if a surprise team or two rises up. It will be a contest the likes of which we've maybe never seen before in Manitoba women's curling.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2011 C1

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