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Vandepoele equally cursed & blessed

Stiff competition hurts and helps

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Alyssa VANDEPOELE has had, depending on how you look at it, either the blessing or the misfortune to have curled in what has been a golden age for junior women's curling in Manitoba.

The blessing is that Vandepoele has had the unmistakable benefit of having curled her entire junior career against some of the finest young women's skips in the entire world without even having to leave the province.

And the misfortune? Same thing.

Curling out of the Victoria Curling Club this winter, Vandepoele is perhaps the best young curler in this province never to have won a major provincial championship -- and that's at least partly a function of the era in which she's curled.

She has competed in two of the last three provincial junior women's finals and lost both of them. But the identity of the skips who beat her -- Kaitlyn Lawes in 2009 and Breanne Meakin in 2011 -- should tell you everything you need to know about the formidable obstacles the 19-year-old university student has faced as she continues to try to claim her first provincial curling title.

"It's been great to have been in all those finals," Vandepoele reflected on Thursday, "and I think I've learned something from every one of those losses.

"It's never easy to have a great week and then not be able to finish it off in the end. It's rough. But hey, it's curling."

Lawes, of course, had a prodigious junior curling career in Manitoba, taking down back-to-back provincial and Canadian junior titles in 2008 and 2009 before making a seamless transition to the women's game, where she is third on Jennifer Jones's juggernaut and was named a first-team all-star at her position at last winter's national Scotties Tournament of Hearts.

And then there is Meakin, who in beating Vandepoele in last winter's provincial junior final did nothing less than make Manitoba curling history, becoming just the fourth curler to ever win four Manitoba junior women's titles. Meakin then also made a quick and successful transition to the elite women's game, as lead on Cathy Overton-Clapham's defending provincial women's champion the past two winters.

So yeah, Vandepoele has lost a lot of big finals. And she even lost another one earlier this month, losing a zone final to another Manitoba great -- Janet Harvey -- that would have qualified Vandepoele for her first trip to the Manitoba women's provincials next month.

On top of that, the only junior provincial final Vandepoele didn't lose in the last three years -- in 2010 -- was lost by her current vice-skip and lead, Kate Cameron and Sheyna Andries, who lost the 2010 title game to Meakin with a different team.

But given the resumes of the skips who have beaten her in those finals, Vandepoele looks more like a victim of circumstance than one of those athletes who cannot win the big one.

And the good news abounds for Vandepoele right now as she and her team -- Cameron (who throws last rock), second Abby Ackland and Andries -- take a tune-up tour through the junior Christmas bonspiel this week in preparation for next week's 2012 Manitoba junior women's championship in Minnedosa.

For starters, Meakin and Lawes have now long graduated from the women's game and Vandepoele would appear to be their heir apparent and likely top seed for next week's junior provincials.

And at age 19, Vandepoele still has the rest of this winter and all of next to get some much needed national experience at the junior level in advance of making a transition to the women's game she hopes will be as successful as the ones Meakin and Lawes made before her.

"It seems like the top women's teams are believing a lot in the juniors," says Vandepoele. "They're watching them and they know they can play at their level. I think it's great how they're building the game and the juniors are stepping up and playing with them."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 30, 2011 C4

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