VIRDEN, Man -- Shannon Birchard came to the Scotties Tournament of Hearts shooting to have fun, a reasonable goal for a women's curling career only just begun.
Someday, the talented Fort Rouge skip may make a championship run. But right now she is so young, just 19, the most junior of the 16 skips competing at the provincial championship. It's proof of Birchard's promise that she qualified, in her first year of eligibility for the ladies' bonspiel and with a cobbled-together team: Birchard is so focused on her junior career, her women's rink has only played a handful of games together.
'Women's play is so much more aggressive than junior play... they like to play those soft come-arounds, those little taps that can really junk it up and get you into trouble. That's caught us a couple times already'
This week, on the fast arena ice at Tundra Oil and Gas Place, they dropped their first three. They were hoping to curl better out of the gate, but hey, losing has its silver lining. "You have to lose to get better," Birchard said Thursday afternoon, after shaking hands on an 8-1 loss to third-seed Michelle Montford.
"You learn from how they approach the game. Women's play is so much more aggressive than junior play... they like to play those soft come-arounds, those little taps that can really junk it up and get you into trouble. That's caught us a couple times already."
What matters more than the score, though, is the chance to see the future of women's curling on display at this Scotties, young women kicking hacks and taking names.
They come at a crucial time. Junior curling has long been on decline in Manitoba, and play-down zones have merged together as the field of players thins. "I looked at the teams I play regularly in juniors, and it was something like 21 of 36 curlers age out in the next two years," Birchard said. "The younger teams, they don't have a lot to play for. There's not a lot of bonspiels, so they end up quitting the sport, which is really sad."
But here in Virden, curling's youth is on display, sweeping and sliding down the sheet. There is Birchard, a two-time Manitoba junior champion with one more chance next year to make it three. There is Team Kerri Einarson third Selena Kaatz, rocking out to a 3-0 start in her first year aged out of junior. There is Barb Spencer's daughter Katie Spencer, 22. who throws third. She stands so much like her veteran mother when she places the broom, shoulders square and steady.
There are more. Montford is just 24 and in her fourth Scotties, and stood undefeated through her first three games this week. Balmoral skip Kate Cameron is just 22 and leading her equally youthful foursome into her second provincials; she finished with a strong 5-2 last year. Then there is Janelle Schwindt, 21, who wrapped up her junior years in 2013 and is curling third for Brandon's Kelsey Russill (the team's usual skip, Stacey Fordyce, is tied up at the TSN Skins game in Banff).
On Wednesday night, Team Russill gave second-seeded Team Spencer a run for their money, putting up a thrilling back-and-forth battle that Spencer came back to win 10-8. Like the other up'n'comers on these sheets, Schwindt wasn't even born when Spencer and sister Darcy Robertson won their first provincial women's title here in Virden, back in 1986. "It's been amazing," she said. "It's such a privilege to be here, be playing against them. You learn a lot from them, seeing them play."
Schwindt grew up in Oak Lake, about 30 minutes outside of Virden, and started curling with her dad. He was an avid recreational curler, and after his daughter fell in love with the sport he became her coach and mentor. She was still skipping a junior rink last year, when Fordyce called her up and asked her to come on board. It's a call that so many young curlers are anxious to get -- and one the young third would like to see happen more often.
"There's not as many as I thought who are about my age, but I think in a few years it will be different," Schwindt said, celebrating her team's first win of the Scotties on Thursday afternoon. "I really like when there's a really experienced skip, and she'll take on three young players. You need that, those people willing to take on younger teams. Because we want to go, and we want to learn."