CALL it — most appropriately — a Manitoba sweep. Or, perhaps, a buffalo stampede.
The curling-crazed province flexed its mighty rock-tossing muscle again Sunday in Langley, B.C., as Manitoba teams charged off with victories at the Canadian junior curling championships.
Altona’s Mackenzie Zacharias was the class of the women’s draw from the very moment the first stones were delivered last Saturday, capping a perfect week with a resounding 10-3 triumph over Abby Marks of Alberta in the morning championship contest.
She celebrated the achievement with her younger sister, Emily, who plays second, along with third Karlee Burgess and lead Lauren Lementine.
Hours later, Jacques Gauthier of Winnipeg seized control early and went on to an 8-6 win over Daniel Bruce of Newfoundland-Labrador in the men’s final.
Gauthier’s quartet includes third Jordan Peters, second Brayden Payette and lead Zack Bilawka
It’s Manitoba’s first dandy double in juniors since Kelly Scott (nee MacKenzie) and Chris Galbraith hoisted trophies on the same day in 1995 in Regina.
"This is huge for Manitoba," said Gauthier, in a phone conversation with the Free Press. "We have so much depth in our province, so we come here really prepared. It’s amazing both teams won."
Think the teams have done all they can this season? Nyet! It’s off to Siberia – Krasnoyarsk, Russia, to be exact – for the world junior championships in mid-February.
"It’s definitely not Hawaii but there’s no other place I’d want to be," said Gauthier, the son of three-time Canadian women’s champion and world senior champion Cathy Gauthier, and long-time Manitoba competitive curler Ron Gauthier. Cathy was a commenter for the game on TSN-TV.
"This is unbelievable. I’m barely able to grasp this. We’ve been so close before, I was starting to think it wasn’t in the stars for us," Jacques said.
He and Peters were part of the J.T. Ryan team that lost the national final a year ago to B.C.’s Tyler Tardi in Prince Albert, Sask., undoubtedly, a heart breaker. Yet, it’s been a steady climb to reach the pinnacle for Jacques, who finished fourth, third and then second in three previous appearances at the nationals before sweet redemption in Langley.
His thoughts immediately turned to Ryan, who aged out of junior last year.
"I’m only as good a skip as I am because of him. He taught me so much, about being composed, about strategy, about sportsmanship. He’s one of my best friends, so it’s bittersweet we couldn’t win one together. But I know he was back home cheering us on," Jacques said.
The circumstances surrounding Team Gauthier’s participation at the nationals is a story in itself. The Assiniboine Memorial foursome lost the provincial final to clubmate Brett Walter in early January, but was awarded a spot in Langley as a top-ranked team in the country when Yukon and Nunavut informed Curling Canada they weren’t able to ice teams.
Walter’s crew finished with a 5-5 and didn’t make the playoffs.
Despite entering in a non-traditional way, Gauthier’s crew proved worthy and had a monster week, finishing 9-1 to earn a direct pass to the final.
Manitoba benefitted from a big miss by Bruce in the third end to steal a pair and take a 3-0 lead, then swiped a single in the fourth. There weren’t many mistakes after that, and the teams traded deuces over five exciting ends until Gauthier, ahead 8-6, ran Newfoundland-Labrador out of rocks in 10.
"We got up on them but we never felt comfortable. They’re such a great team," he said, of Bruce’s quartet.
Zacharias, meanwhile, got the jump on Marks and cruised to Manitoba’s first junior women’s crown since Kaitlyn Lawes won back to back in 2008 and 2009.
"Every junior curler, this is their dream — to play in that gold-medal game and then win that trophy and eventually see your name on the back of a Canada jacket," she said. "It’s been my dream forever and I can’t believe it’s come true."
The Zacharias sisters curled in the ‘19 Canadian juniors, finishing fifth (6-4). Over the summer, some major reinforcements from the Maritimes were added to the mix, in the form of two proven winners, Burgess and Lementine.
Burgess had earned a pair of previous Canadian titles while representing Nova Scotia (2016, skipped by Mary Fay; 2018, skipped by Kaitlyn Jones), while Lementine served as fifth player for Nova Scotia in 2018.
"Before summer I barely knew these girls and now I feel like we’re so close, just great friends. It’s so special to play with people that you love being around. We get along great off and on the ice. It’s been a great year," said Zacharias, in a phone call with the Free Press.
Burgess, who has been in a relationship with Gauthier since 2017, made history by winning a record third career Canadian junior women’s crown.
Gauthier admitted he was far more nervous watching the women’s game than playing later in the day. "I was a wreck. You’re helpless. At least on the ice I felt in control," he said, laughing.
Zacharias swung the hammer with force in the opening end of the final, posting a key deuce to get a jump on the opponents from Edmonton. The teams traded singles until the Manitobans blanked the fifth end and then settled for a single in the sixth.
In the seventh, Zacharias was in great shape with a couple of counters but Marks, playing a tricky hit through a gap for one, inadvertently used Plan B, nicking off a top rock, striking a second and then rolling to four-foot to register a fortuitous single.
Zacharias said the lucky shot caused them no consternation.
"I felt like we played a really strong end and I felt like we did all we could, and Abby made a great shot on her last one. We just took the momentum from that end and carried it to the next end," she said.
Indeed, they did. Team ‘Toba struck for a whopping four in the eighth as Zacharias executed a nifty hit with her final shot, driving a red Alberta stone through a cluster without disturbing any of her own yellow counters.
"To be honest, I didn’t think it was there for four. I thought three or maybe just two, but Lauren called the line so perfect. All credit to her and the sweepers on that shot," said Zacharias.
Manitoba stole a pair in the ninth, signalling handshakes and the end of an onerous mission. The Zacharias quartet went 9-0 in the provincial championship and finished 11-0 out west.
"Honestly, from the first time we stepped onto the ice together, we just gelled really well. Every game we played we kept feeling better, we all had the same goals and we knew exactly what we needed to do to prepare to get here," said Zacharias. "There’s no way we thought we’d go undefeated."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).