January 23, 2018

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Team Brown sticking around

KILLARNEY, Man. — Oh, it’s been a doozy of a season for Joelle Brown and her teammates: dented by injuries, partly derailed by illness. The skip herself wound up in hospital, and was sidelined by ailments for all of October.

Yet they soldiered on, and here is the twist: with two days done at the 2018 Manitoba Scotties, Brown is in a good spot. Ahead of her lies a well-lit road to the playoffs, a green light to fight for the province’s top curling prize.

So, is it time for the Charleswood Curling Club foursome to start watching the scoreboards?

“No, no, never,” Brown said Thursday after a key win over Briane Meilleur. “We just take it one game at a time.”

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KILLARNEY, Man. — Oh, it’s been a doozy of a season for Joelle Brown and her teammates: dented by injuries, partly derailed by illness. The skip herself wound up in hospital, and was sidelined by ailments for all of October.

Yet they soldiered on, and here is the twist: with two days done at the 2018 Manitoba Scotties, Brown is in a good spot. Ahead of her lies a well-lit road to the playoffs, a green light to fight for the province’s top curling prize.

PHIL HOSSACK / Winnipeg Free Press files</p><p>Skip Shannon Birchard is feeling better about her team’s chances after a rough start Wednesday.</p></p>

PHIL HOSSACK / Winnipeg Free Press files

Skip Shannon Birchard is feeling better about her team’s chances after a rough start Wednesday.

So, is it time for the Charleswood Curling Club foursome to start watching the scoreboards?

"No, no, never," Brown said Thursday after a key win over Briane Meilleur. "We just take it one game at a time."

Still, anyone can do the math. By Thursday night, with just three games left in their round robin, Brown was sitting at 3-1 with all of her pool’s top-seeded contenders — Jennifer Jones, Shannon Birchard and Meilleur — now behind her.

Now consider that all of those three had yet to play each other, as of Thursday night.

"It’s a fantastic place to be," said Brown. "As a team, the only expectations that we have are for ourselves, and being here, and enjoying the moment. Play as best you can... and most importantly, have a good time on the ice.

"That’s what we’re doing, and it seems to be working rather well for us."

It wasn’t easy to get there. Both of Brown’s Thursday wins were nailbiters: it took a 10th-end steal of three to clinch a 10-8 decision over Kristy Watling in the morning, and her 5-4 afternoon win over Meilleur came down to the last shot.

That throw was a close one, a careful hit for a game-winning deuce. Brown made it, when it counted.

"Lots of things happened today," Brown said, with a laugh. "In both games, we were in spots where we really had to put some of the later ends together, and just be confident when we had the hammer. So I’m pleased."

They’re healthy now, so she’s pleased with that, too. For much of the season, alternate Colleen Kilgallen, an experienced skip, led the crew of third Susan Baleja, second Natalie Claude-Harding and lead Carlene Strand.

In fact, the game against Meilleur — their fourth at Shamrock Centre — was just Team Brown’s ninth as a whole squad.

Yet there is so much history on this team. Brown is a provincials fixture; 2018 marks her 14th appearance. Baleja is a veteran of 11 Scotties, and Strand has five. Claude-Harding, meanwhile, is on the buffalo hunt for the second time.

Her first time? That was back in 1998, playing alongside — you guessed it — Brown.

The experience helps, especially on this critical home stretch. The team has felt the flashes of nerves, Brown said, but they’ve all gone through it before. Besides, those feelings can help them focus on what they’re playing for.

"Cal Botterill used to tell us that the butterflies are a good thing," she said. "You just gotta get ‘em to fly in formation."

It’s no gimme, of course, for Brown to make playoffs. She’ll still have to face Jennifer Briscoe, Lisa Hale-Menard and Alyssa Calvert to finish the round robin; while they had all fallen to 1-3 on the week, any of them could play spoiler.

The last time Brown made the playoffs was in 2011, when she lost a tiebreaker to Kerri Einarson; the year before, she made it as far as the 2-vs-2 game. As for this year, there’s a whole lot of curling left to play, and a lot to shake out.

Still, what would it mean to Brown if she could get back there again — or even, after all these years, to win it all?

"I can’t even go there," she said, after a moment. "It would be very surreal. It would be an incredible experience."

● ● ●

After a topsy-turvy opening day, much of Thursday’s action was comparatively quiet. There was a slew of blowouts — 13 of the day’s 16 games lasted fewer than 10 ends — and three of those saw handshakes come out after just five.

One of the latter belonged to Birchard, when she defeated Briscoe 8-1; she also cruised 9-3 over Calvert in the morning draw. For the 23-year-old fourth seed, those victories were a much-needed response to a rocky start.

"We feel very confident, and a lot better than we did at the end of the day yesterday," said Birchard.

"We feel really comfortable with the ice right now, and everyone’s play has picked up quite a bit today."

Now come the fireworks. Some of the week’s most anticipated tilts will take the ice today, with playoff hopes hanging in the balance. Among the key matches: Birchard will face Meilleur at 12:15 p.m., and Jones in the 7:45 p.m. draw.

Then there’s the other round-robin pool, where a whole lot is riding on a sibling rivalry.

After two days of play, perennial contenders Darcy Robertson and Barb Spencer were sitting on polished 4-0 records. On Friday morning, the sisters will fight each other to remain undefeated, with second seed Einarson (also 4-0) lying in wait for both.

"It’s always fun to play my sister, and we always have good games, so it’ll be a battle," Robertson said after a delightful 9-6 tilt against Scotties rookie Rebecca Lamb.

"You have to win all your games, not just tomorrow."

The last time the sisters faced each other in a provincial championship was in 2016, when Spencer beat Robertson 9-2 in the round robin; neither made the playoffs that year. Robertson returned in 2017 and roared to the final after a strong week.

Today’s game will be one big family affair: for years, Spencer has curled with one or more of her daughters, including third Katie Spencer and second Holly Spencer.

This year, she added Allyson Spencer at lead to round out the team.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Melissa Martin .

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Updated on Friday, January 12, 2018 at 9:09 AM CST: Adds photo

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