Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Congratulations to all of them

I’m going to be honest; I love the Scottish Championships on so many levels. There is the fact that you meet so many old chinas from years gone by; there is the fact that you have winners and losers; there is emotion on show – sometimes raw and unchecked; there is so much at stake for winners and losers; there are personal triumphs and tragedies; there are wheels within wheels – sub-plots, if you will, as ex-team mates battle it out. In short, there is nothing to beat the atmosphere and tension as it grows and grows towards the end of the week. Second only perhaps to the Brier Championships in Canada and perhaps above even the World Championships, the Scottish Championships give you raw tension. It is, in short, a fantastic test of nerve on so many levels.

“Dark mutterings I hear,” as Yoda might have put it. “Downgrade the Scottish Championship to a mere championship and choose the team to go to the Worlds.” Aye right. Why don’t you just go ahead and do that and while you’re at it, drive another nail into competitive curling in Scotland? Over my dead body, my friends; over my dead body.

This year’s competitions were brilliant – just brilliant! Oh – I’ll grant you they weren’t brilliant if you were a David Murdoch or an Eve Muirhead. But if you were a neutral observer, they were brilliant. Indeed, I wonder if we haven’t just witnessed another of those seminal moments in our sport – another 'changing of the guard'. They have happened before: Ken Horton’s win in 1977; Mike Hay’s triumph in 1984; David Murdoch in 2003. In the Ladies' Championships, think of Isobel Torrance’s first victory in 1985 (her second player that year being a certain Jackie Steele); Christine Allison’s first victory in 1988; Kirsty Hay in 1995; Rhona Martin’s first and only victory in 2000 – look what that lead to – and Kelly Wood’s triumph in 2005. Yes – I truly believe that this Scottish Championship gave us a double-header; a double-whammy on so many different levels.

The Men

Tight – so very tight! Unfancied teams beating more fancied opponents, yet sailing above all of the tension and tightness, two teams began to emerge from the pack – Teams Brewster and Reid.

Way back when, Sandy Reid was a stalwart member of the front end union and won two Scottish Junior titles. People tend to forget that. He won a World Junior Silver Medal in 1998 in Thunder Bay to John Morris’s Canadian team, which included Brent Laing at lead, by the way, and Brad Gushue as alternate. At third this season, though throwing last stones, was Moray Combe. Moray has been around for years and years and years. He has competed in numerous Scottish championships as well as domestic competitions the length and breadth of the land. He thinks and worries constantly about the game; he was one of the leading lights behind the Mini Tour. He cares.

Their front end was made up of Scott Macleod, one of the famous Blair Atholl Macleod siblings – his sister is Scottish Junior and Scottish Ladies' Champion, Rhiann – and David Soutar. Both the front end are former Scottish Junior Champions, so though you might have been tempted to write off the team, you would have done so at your own risk. None of these chaps is a duffer – they are all proven winners.

In a tight 1 v 2 play-off game versus Tom Brewster, they had prevailed. Add this to their victory against the same opposition in the first round of the championships, and they looked to be the in-form team.

Up against them in the final was that old warhorse and scarred veteran of the Scottish Championship, Tom Brewster. Again, he had a young team ahead of him. Michael Goodfellow and Scott Andrews provided a strong front end. Scott is a two-time Scottish Junior Champion and World Junior Silver Medallist last year. Michael was twice runner-up in the Scottish Junior Championships before he aged out last season. The same applies to talented third Greg Drummond. Michael and Greg had also reached the final of the Scottish Championship last season in Glen Muirhead’s team. So again, here was a battle-hardened team with their share of triumph and disaster within the ranks.

Team Brewster’s route to the final had included a semifinal game versus David Murdoch. David and Warwick Smith are world-class, pure and simple. Both are multiple world champions. At second they had the powerful and enigmatic youngster, Glen Muirhead. At lead, was the committed, experienced and three-time Scottish champion, Ross Hepburn. In truth, the Murdoch quartet was in command almost for the whole game. It was tight though, and when Tom made a clutch draw against multiple Murdoch counters in the ninth end, the scores were tied, though David had last stone in the tenth.

With Tom’s first stone in the fateful last end, he attempted to draw round a short guard but was light and came up short. David attempted a difficult double clear, but was about an inch tight and ended up clearing Tom’s two guards but left his own shooter in play and covering the edge of the four foot. Tom’s out-turn draw was perfect and bit a piece of the one foot, showing maybe three-quarters of a stone perhaps. David elected to play the cold draw to the one foot, though he knew that he had a bit of backing with Tom’s stone on the tee line. Meat and drink. He slid down to the far end, conferred with his front end – strong sweepers both, settled in the hack, concentrated and began his delivery. Warwick Smith’s brush was almost exactly where Greg’s had been a couple of minutes before. David slid out – he seemed to be sliding ever-so-slightly tight from where I was, but that could have been an illusion. In any case, he released and from there, it was down to Glen and Ross. Except it wasn’t. Maybe ten yards along its path, David just dropped his brush and looked heavenwards. He knew already. The sweepers stayed close. Warwick shrugged and shook his head – he knew. Still the sweepers stayed close, but in their hearts, they knew too. Handshakes all round. I looked at Glen. I knew how he felt. Shell-shocked. If you haven’t been there, my friend, you will never, ever know, is all I’m telling you. Glen’s been there a few times. He knows. He will be stronger for it, though that particular platitude wears thin with him at the moment.

Crucially, Tom and his young team had stared defeat in the face and had come through it. Onto the final.

The final went the way that many finals go: it was cat and mouse; it was cagey; it was tight. I was impressed by the demeanour and guts that all eight players brought to the party. The first two ends promised much; the middle ends fizzled and popped, but there were a lot of blanks; the ninth and tenth was when the fun started. In the ninth, the Reid team forced the issue and, with his last stone to play, Tom was faced with two counters front left. He went for the double at biggish weight but only managed to hit and stay. Moray needed to hit and lie for his two and a one shot lead going into the final end. He gave himself more ice and played a quieter weight than Tom. His stone nearly curled all the way over the face of the target – as it was he cleared it, but only scored one, so the stage was set for a nail-biting last end.

Early doors and Tom is lying one on the top of the four foot, while the Reid team have a guard out front (nosed earlier on) and a clinger in the back twelve foot. Crucially though, they had a welder on Tom’s stone top four. With Tom’s first stone, he elected to blast the welder and lose his own stone as well, leaving the Reid team with the stone in the back twelve. Moray and Sandy elected to cover the four foot with a stone sitting in the eight foot. Moray Combe can stand tall after all of this. He slid down the ice slowly, settled in the hack and threw the perfect stone. A less experienced skip than Tom might have been tempted to go for the hit, but there was no real margin for error, so he called the right shot – the draw to one side of the four foot on the in turn. Simple really – except... except it’s the last stone of the Scottish Championship and the easier road to the pot lid is blocked by the stone that Moray had just thrown!

You could have heard a pin drop in the arena. You could almost feel the adrenalin flowing through the veins of Team Brewster; you could hear their hearts beat; electricity sparked and sizzled in the ice hall as Tom sat and threw the most important stone of his life. Down it came; sweepers were on, then off, then on again. As it travelled, it looked slow from the side – but by this time it was a team effort and all four were focused on one thing – getting it to the four foot. Scott Andrews and Michael Goodfellow are good sweepers. As the stone approached the house, it looked better and better, and then it was all over. Tom dropped to his knees; fifteen years of trying; fifteen years of disappointment – it was all finally over and he was crowned Scottish Champion skip. The eerie breath of wind that slipped silently through the applause was a ghost finally laying itself to rest.

And the runners-up? They came to the party; they played some great curling and when the fat lady came along for a song, they sang. They can hold their heads high – none of which, sad to say as they read this of an evening, will make the pain any the easier.

The Women

When Anna Sloan, Claire Hamilton, Vicki Adams and Rhiann Macleod took to the ice on Friday morning at 9.00am, there were still six teams left in the championships, but Anna and co were hanging by a thread on two wins and four losses. Two hours later, they were tied 5-5 in their game against Sarah Reid, Kerry Barr, Kay Adams and Barbara McFarlane, all of whom are former World Junior champions. The ninth end was blanked and Team Reid took the hammer home in the tenth. Anna stole and thus began the biggest fightback since Pete Smith won the men's championship in 2002.

In the same session, Hannah Fleming, Alice Spence, Becca Kesley and Abi Brown had the beating of pre-competition favourites Eve Muirhead, Kelly Wood, Lorna Vevers and Annie Laird, dropping them to the 3 v 4 play-off. Hannah remained undefeated and knew that Jackie Lockhart, Karen Kennedy, Kim Brewster and Sarah McIntyre awaited them in the 1 v 2 play-off.

But who was to play Jackie Lockhart in the semi final? Friday afternoon and evening were busy times for the ladies. First of all, Anna had to play Sarah again in a tie-break game. This turned out to be an easier game for the Sloan foursome than the earlier encounter and they ran the Reid team out of stones in the tenth end, winning the game 7 - 5.

Next up was Gail Munro, Lyndsay Cumming, Kerry Adams-Taylor and Sarah Ferguson. A tight one this, and it went all the way to the wire. But again Team Sloan prevailed and Anna, Vicki and Rhiann were on a roll towards the Saturday 3 v 4 play-off game against their junior skip, Eve Muirhead, playing in this championship with her 'senior' team.

In the meantime, Hannah and company had sat through the rest of Friday, safe in the knowledge that they had two bites at the cherry to make the final. First up, it was the 1 v 2 play-off game against Jackie Lockhart. As an illustration of how team Fleming has progressed, this was an interesting game to follow. Jackie has a strong, experienced team in front of her. There are few finer throwers of the stone in the ladies game than Karen Kennedy at third; Kim Brewster has been around the block more than once at second and Sarah Macintyre’s international junior record bears comparison with any other curler in the world game. Yet none of this fazed Hannah, Alice, Becca or Abi. They stuck to their task, took a three in the third end, survived all that team Lockhart threw at them, scored another two in the eighth end and eventually ran their more experienced and wordly-wise opponents out of stones in the tenth.

In a funny kind of a way, I was almost hoping for their own sakes that they would lose that game, but win it they did and, not for the first time, a team had made it all the way to the final on a perfect record. This is an amazing achievement, especially when you consider that all four are current juniors with at least another year to go on the under-21 circuit. Much credit should go to Debbie Knox, who has quietly given an awful lot of her personal time coaching these four youngsters to the top of the Scottish game. For now though, they had to take a quiet seat at the back; their curling was done until the next day’s final.

Over on the other side of the ice rink, Anna Sloan and company were facing up to the might that is Team Muirhead. This must have been a teaser of a game for all concerned. Eve skips Anna, Vicki and Rhiann in the juniors. Claire Hamilton will have been under pressure to 'produce the goods' as Eve’s replacement in the Sloan senior team. The old hands on Eve’s team, Kelly Wood, Lorna Vevers and Annie Laird were in kind of the same position as Claire on Anna’s team, though none of them had the fallback that Eve, Anna, Vicki and Rhiann had – namely a national championship already in the bag this year.

The game was tense, as you would expect. Sloan struck first with a two in the third, but Eve immediately hit back in the very next end with a two of her own. Ann took a one in the fifth. After the fifth end break there was that kind of cruel, game-changing stroke of bad luck that can sometimes alter the course of a game. Eve was attempting a tap-back on a Sloan counter. It seemed to pick up and suddenly a steal of three is on the scoreboard. Never nice when a game is decided like that; to be fair to the Sloan team, they kept focused and, despite a wee scare in the tenth when Eve’s last stone rolled through the house, so that she did not lie 'game' when Anna came to throw her last stone – huge turnaround that from the 'pressure' point of view – Anna had a simple 'hit it anywhere' for her last stone to win the game. Phew! Sighs of relief all round – Team Sloan had reached the semi final and by now, they were on a roller-coaster of a roll!

The semifinal was against Jackie Lockhart and her team, still smarting from their defeat at the hands of Team Fleming. Now, it is fair to say that Team Lockhart have been there and done that – all of them. They have all worn the colours of their country with pride and they have all won medals at international championships. With Eve failing in the 3 v 4 play-off game against Anna, they must have begun to think that the championship was there to be won. Last season, life had been cruel to Jackie. She had reached the final of the Scottish playing third to Eve, but a last-minute injury robbed her of the chance to take to the ice and, of course, to travel to the World Championships, where the Scots won a Silver Medal. That said, she has won the Scottish no fewer than eight times and third Karen Kennedy is a four-time Scottish champion. Surely, this experienced combination could not be beaten twice in one day by teams consisting solely or mainly of juniors?

It was tight and nervy, but again, the Sloan team rose to the challenge. They stole in the third, then crucially in the eighth and ninth ends to come home 4-1 ahead, albeit without the hammer. Two nerveless take outs around guards sealed the victory and it was onto the final the next day. On Thursday night, they had been two and four; now, on Saturday night, they found themselves in the final having won five games on the trot – could they make it six? We would have to wait.

Two finalists and only one winner – that’s the cruel reality of sport at the top level. Two contenders whose route to the final could not have been more contrasting – one team undefeated and the other scrabbling and fighting over scraps to get there. Crucially perhaps, one team refreshed after just one game on the Saturday, but the other battle-hardened to match fitness with five wins under their belts since the cock had crowed on Friday morning. One team, three of whose members had won a Scottish Junior Championship three weeks earlier over the other team, all of whom had lost the selfsame game. Friends off the ice and rivals on the ice – it was a potent mix of emotions and conflicts and for the supporters, it was difficult to take sides – both teams deserved it so much. The question was – who would blink first?

Team Fleming had the hammer and she managed to blank the first three ends of the game. It was tight and it was cat and mouse, but the blinking was done in the fourth and, sad for them, it was Hannah’s squad that blinked first. Team Sloan went for it big style and left Hannah with a tricky shot for her last stone, which she made. First blood to Team Fleming, but it was a force of one – no question. If the fourth end was the end where the momentum swung in Sloan’s favour, the fifth end provided us with the confirmation. A sublime, quiet, out turn take out round all kinds of stuff out front that Hannah, crucially, could not follow. Her stone ran agonisingly wide and caught on an outside guard. She maybe jammed it a tad – there was certainly a lot of rotation on the stone as it left her hand. A huge, psychologically-chilling three went up on the scoreboard at end five and Team Sloan had one hand on the trophy.

Now – a word to the wise. It is quite the most horrible feeling when that kind of thing happens to you – especially in a really important game like the finals of a major championship. It is like the wind being knocked out of you; your stomach lurches – you almost want to be sick. You want time to reverse; you want the chance to play a couple of stones again. There is genuinely nothing worse in the context of competition at the highest level than that moment when you know that the wheels are just maybe coming off the barrow.

And they had five minutes to reflect on it. Never was coach Knox’s intervention more important, I suspect. She needed to calm her young charges nerves and build their confidence up for the next five ends. The game was by no means over at this point, but there was no denying the body blow that Anna Sloan and her team had just delivered.

The next couple of ends were tight, then there came another three and that, to be frank, was that. 7-2 at this level with only two ends to go is never completely insurmountable, but these girls in Team Sloan know all about winning. They like winning. Winning is their friend. They are not scared of it. They were not going to lose five shots in two ends.

And there, writ large was the difference on Sunday morning. Our champions this year really enjoy winning. Young though they might be and charming as they all are – they are a ruthless bunch on the ice and there’s an end to it! I should add that this bodes well for the World Championships in Denmark.

And for Hannah’s team? Well, believe it or not, they have at least one more year in juniors to look forward to and they must take only the positives from this experience. They have mixed it with the best; they have beaten every top team in Scotland; they have proved that they can win games at this level. Down they will doubtless be, but they are all part of the brave new world that is Scottish ladies curling.

Not a bad place to be.

And one final thought on which to ponder, if you are still with me at the end of this – of the sixteen competitors in the two finals this year, seven are still juniors, another four are just this side of the juniors, two are young enough to remember what it was like to play in the juniors, which leaves three who should know better!

Congratulations to all of them!

1 comment:

  1. A superb description of our game at the highest level. I've watched it live, seen it on TV, but read every word, right to the end!