Coldwater, Ontario’s Sherry Middaugh — of all people — is the last remaining obstacle standing between Jennifer Jones and the Winter Olympics.
Middaugh — a perennial also-ran at major Canadian curling events — stunned defending Canadian women’s champion Rachel Homan 10-4 in the semifinal of the Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings Friday night to advance to Saturday’s final at the MTS Centre against Jones, where the winner earns the right to represent Canada in Sochi in February.
Middaugh, 47, was asked Friday night what it would mean to finally not only win the big one, but the biggest one of all, after decades of trying. "It would be an absolute dream come true -- especially all the years I’ve been around the game," said Middaugh. "And I know the hard work we put into it. And we’re the best of friends on and off the ice. So it would mean a lot."
And so with that, Winnipeg’s Jones will have the advantage tonight of hammer, choice of rocks, a hometown crowd and an opponent in Middaugh who has — despite over 20 years of trying — never finished higher than third at a national Canadian Curling Association championship.
Still, the game is won and lost between the lines and Jones is no stranger in recent years to being the victim of major upsets in big games. The Winnipeg skip was also favoured to win the 2011 Canadian final over Amber Holland, the 2012 Canadian semifinal over Alberta’s Heather Nedohin and last February’s Canadian final over Rachel Homan -- and she lost all three.
While Jones already defeated Middaugh 9-7 this week when the two teams met in the round-robin last Sunday, it took some late-end heroics by Jones, including a game-tying deuce in the 10th end and then a steal of two more in the extra, to squeak out a narrow victory.
And so little wonder then Jones was talking up her opponent on Friday and asking for nothing more tonight than a shot to win. "Sherry and her team have been playing great all week and coming through tiebreakers and then a semifinal, you get some momentum going," said Jones.
"Really, at the end of the day, we just want to play our best game. And if it’s good enough to win — fantastic. And if it’s not, at least we’ll have no regrets."
Middaugh’s appearance in Saturday’s final is nothing short of stunning. Little was expected from her team — third Jo-Ann Rizzo, second Lee Merklinger and lead Leigh Armstrong — in a field where the skip’s curling resume of four bronze medal finishes at the national Scotties Tournament of Hearts pales in comparison to an eight-team field that included three of the last four Canadian champions.
But in a week in which more was expected from her husband, Wayne — third for Glenn Howard’s men’s powerhouse — than was expected from her, Middaugh opened at 1-3 and then flew under the radar all the way to a winner-takes-all final with Jones.
A 4-3 finish in the round-robin earned her rink a tiebreaker game Friday afternoon with Winnipeg’s Chelsea Carey for the third and final playoff spot and Middaugh took fullest advantage, shooting a blistering 91 percent and making everything in sight to eliminate Carey and end the hopes of organizers for an all-Manitoba women’s final Saturday night.
Friday night’s loss, meanwhile, was a bitter pill to swallow for Homan, who was widely expected to join Jones in Saturday’s final in a game that would have been a reprise of last year’s final of the Canadian women’s curling championship.
While Homan will still get to represent Canada this winter — as defending champion Team Canada at the national Scotties in Montreal next month, instead of the Olympics in February — she said Friday night it’s all cold comfort.
"No, I don’t think there’s any consolation right now. But we had the opportunity and we didn’t perform. It sucks, but that’s alright. We’ve got hopefully a few more years of curling left."