Twelve teams have entered the Scottish ladies' championships this year and I am pleased! Ok, so it is not thirty; but it is a few more than the past couple of seasons and I really hope that all the competitors enjoy their competition and that they are encouraged to enter again next season. I was worried for a while that Scottish lady curlers had lost their competitive mojo and that everyone else had just given up taking the fight to Eve Muirhead and her world-class team. I am glad that a few younger teams are taking up the challenge and I am looking forward to seeing some cracking games between talented teams as the season progresses.
The Scottish championships will have a pre-qualifying weekend on the 1st and 2nd December when eight of the twelve teams (teams Muirhead, Lockhart, Fleming and McMillan have been 'pre-qualified' to the final weekend) will play in two round-robin leagues of four, with the top two from each league qualifying for the eight-team finals in Perth, February 11-17. So, how will it all go?
Eve, Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams and Claire Hamilton are a talented foursome and no mistake. Are they the best team that Scotland has ever sent out to international championships? Well, they have to go some to equal the exploits of their predecessors, Rhona Martin’s Olympic gold medallist team and Jackie Lockhart’s world champion team, but they are on their way and time alone will tell if they reach those ultimate heights or not. They have to be installed as warm favourites for the Scottish championships.
Unlike the men (shame on that decision, by the way!), they will face a challenge to represent Scotland at the Europeans; that challenge will come from the redoubtable Gail Munro and Lyndsay Cumming. Lyndsay is a strong and supportive third; Gail has that McMillan 'chutzpah', for want of a better word – she never knows when she is beaten. Their front-end has yet to be confirmed, though Jodie Milroy returns from last season’s runners-up team. In a sense, it doesn’t matter who they get in as their second player (though it should, of course), but Gail and Lyndsay know each others’ games so well at the top end that I expect them to challenge strongly again – not only in the European play-offs, but also in the Scottish championships proper.
Jackie Lockhart plays with Karen Kennedy and Sarah Macintyre. They have recruited Katriona Davidson (nee Fairweather) to replace Kay Adams at second. Katriona and Jackie have 'form' of course; they won the world championship together in Bismarck. If they were good enough to win a world championship then, they will undoubtedly challenge for a Scottish championship now. Those three teams will be there or thereabouts when the fat lady joins the party and starts singing.
But, do you know what? I really hope that some other twenty-somethings make the party as well. I really like the look of Kerry Barr’s team this year. Rachael Simms is a strong player at three and Rhiann Macleod and Barbara McPake make up a useful front end, though Rhiann is better known as a top-class lead than second. They should challenge. So should Lorna Vevers, Sarah Reid, Alice Spence and Kay Adams. There is a wealth of winning international experience in this team; three world junior gold medallists and an Olympian serial winner of the Scottish junior and ladies' championships will be a tough act to knock out. The way the team reads, the top end are playing out of their 'natural' positions; Sarah is used to skipping and Lorna is used to playing in the middle order – the boiler house of the team at either third or, more recently, second. It will be interesting to see how they get on; the great curlers, mind you, can play anywhere in the team.
Leading the junior charge in the ladies' championships this season is the team skipped by Hannah Fleming. Fresh from their world junior ladies gold medal, Hannah, Lauren Gray and Abi Brown bring in Abi’s cousin, Jennifer Dodds to replace the aged-out Alice Spence. This is still a very strong-looking team and one whose progress I will follow with interest as the season progresses to the business end early next year. They won the Cardwell Garden Centre Braehead Open yesterday!
Look out also for young teams skipped by Jennifer Martin and Gina Aitken. I do not expect them to win the Scottish ladies this season, but I do expect them to do well in their own championship.
On the wider front, whilst I am pleased that there are more entries this year than last, we should not rest on our laurels. Somebody, somewhere in Cairnie House should be making plans to achieve a goal for ladies' curling. The goal should be this: by 2016, there should be a minimum of twenty-four teams entering the Scottish ladies' championships. Further, at least six of those teams should have a fighting and realistic chance of winning the championships.
I shall return to this theme as the months progress, but next – the juniors!