March Madness is fully upon us sports fans.....and there is nothing better! While the NCAA basketball tournament is preparing for it's annual ingestion of drama into our lives, the #curling world has already begun a full month of upsets, shining moments and championship memories.
The 2016 Tim Horton's Brier is already underway in Ottawa as the Team Canada representative for the upcoming World Men's Curling Championship will soon be determined (sidenote: check out the #TwineTime preview with guest Mark Kean HERE). However, while most eyes within the sport are focused on our nation's capital, across the pond a huge event has also begun: The 2016 World Junior Curling Championship!!
Now what kind of sports/curling blogger would I be if I didn't offer up a preview & prediction blog post on #wjcc2016? As someone who has been using the hashtag #growthesport all season, I need to live up to this by trying my best to cover as much of the sport as possible right? Now, in honour of March Madness, I thought I would present this preview in a bit different format.
The preview portion for both the men and women will seed each of the competing 10 teams. Rationale will be given as to why the selection committee (i.e.: ME) seeded each nation accordingly. After the seeding has been released, the predictions will follow. Will the top seeds make the final? Will we see Cinderella slip on the glass slipper in Denmark? Which three (yes 3) teams risk being relegated? The top seed is obviously considered the favourite. However, the team(s) to watch and the darkhorse team(s) will also be identified with the seeding. Ok, the selection committee has been looking over the profiles of each nation...time for the reveal!
#10 - Turkey (Ugurcan Karagoz) - Welcome Turkey! This will be the first major curling event for the nation...and it comes in a weird way. Turkey was originally allocated as the host country for this event, thus earning direct entry into the tournament. After concerns over athlete safety (and other issues), Turkey was removed as the host and Denmark won the right. However, since this only occurred in January of this year, Turkey was still given their provisional "hosting" spots for the men and women. Regardless of reason, welcome Turkey nonetheless. This can only be seen as a win to help #growthesport. They will be in tough but could perhaps pick up a win or two again some of their fellow bottom dwelling teams.
#9 - Denmark (Tobias Thune) - The now-host Danes did qualify to play in this event by virtue of their runner-up finish at the World Junior B Tournament in January. Lucky for them...and the fans...I suppose too. The Danes will be in tough though. The men's field is scattered with experience. They will be lucky to avoid relegation.
#8 - South Korea (Seong Yu-jin) - Similar to the Danes, South Korea qualified to be here by finishing third at the B tournament. Also similar to the Danes, they will be hard-pressed to hold onto their spot here. South Korea did compete last year but was knocked down to the B tournament (relegation) as a result of their 3-6 record. This is a completely different team as well. They will be lucky to duplicate those 3 wins from a year ago.
#7 - Norway (Magnus Ramsfjell) - Last year Norway finished 4-5 but, as is often the case with juniors, this year the usually strong curling nation fields a completely different team. I think Norway should be safe and could surprise a few teams this year but a playoff push seems to be a bit out of reach given this field.
#6 - Russia (Alexander Eremin) - The Dark Horse pick for the men side. Eremin and his Russian brood could shock a few of the favourites this week. Last year Russia struggled with a 3-6 record and dropped into relegation. However, Eremin is a new skip but throws lead stones. The team's fourth was the vice on last year's team (Timur Gadzhikhanov) and his experience of playing at this event last year could come in handy. Also, this team won the B tournament to gain their spot here. Coming off that spiel victory could also provide some confidence and momentum.
#5 - Sweden (Rasmus Wrana) - How deep is Swedish junior curling? This year's skip, Rasmus Wrana, last competed in 2012 and finished runner-up to Canada (skipped by Brendan Bottcher). Since then, Sweden has sent teams skipped by Gustav Eskilsson and Fredrik Nyman (both only finding a best 4th place finish). This year Wrana and joined forces with Nyman in hopes of bringing Sweden their first junior title since 2011 (skipped by now two-time men's world champion Oskar Eriksson). Nyman will be quite familiar with the teams seeded above him and should be able to use his experience from last year. Wrana returns for one last crack at the title as well and that thirst for gold will be tough to beat.
#4 - United States (Korey Dropkin) - Speaking of welcome back...hello once again Mr. Dropkin, the Watch Out For team on the men's side. We have missed you. Dropkin returns to the World Junior stage one last time after missing the previous two year's being upset in the US Junior Championships. Dropkin has experience being here, previously competing in 2012 (5th place) and 2013 (7th place). He does not want to end his junior career on a sour note though and would love to finally find the podium. He has a strong team with him and, similar to a few others competing this week, has played a few tour events this season. Looking for an entertaining side story this week? What about the bromance rivalry between Dropkin and Team Canada skip Matt Dunstone. These guys are best of buds off the ice, even starting a North American Cup competition between their two teams. I had the chance to briefly ask Dropkin about the upcoming event and the Double D bromance, "I think we're going to see a very competitive field in Denmark this year. I know a lot of the team members of Canada, Switzerland, Scotland, Sweden and others have plenty of experience and success in the world level. I think Matt Dunstone and company will definitely be our toughest competition - they are such skilled curlers that have a great understanding of the game and communicate together really well. Although they may be our main rival on the ice this upcoming week, they are also our good buddies off the ice. This past season we've supported each other non-stop, and I must say I have learned tons from Matt just skipping against him. Currently those boys sure have an advantage over us on the NA Cup, but I think our team has come a long ways since the beginning of the year. I have a good feeling about the week ahead of us - and you never know when the tables will turn." I have said on this blog space Dropkin is the future of US Curling, this could be his coming out party!
#2 - Switzerland (Yannick Schwaller) - How about these results? Two World Junior Curling Championship appearances, 1 title (2014) and 1 runner-up (2015). Not too shabby! Schwaller is without a doubt a Co-Favourite this week. The team has basically beat everyone in the field. Two years ago they eliminated Canada's Braden Calvert in the 3/4 game en route to the title. Last season the two met again in the championship final, with Calvert extracting revenge. Is there any reason to bet against another all Red and White final between Switzerland and Canada? Schwaller has tasted world championship gold before and the bitterness of silver. This is a hungry team who wants revenge of their own and would love nothing more than to reclaim their world title this year. However, standing in their way....
#1 - Canada (Matt Dunstone) - The other Co-Favourite this week is easily Team Dunstone and Canada. For many, Dunstone is probably considered the overwhelming favourite but don't get ahead of yourselves given the high quality of this field. Dunstone and company do bring the most experience on the tour level to the ice though and are fresh off a Manitoba provincial final runner-up appearance. The Manitoba provincials served as the perfect warm-up event in a way and, given how they played, a world title is within their grasp. When asked about the field he will be competing against this week, skip Matt Dunstone told me this is a "Very strong field. Switzerland lost the final last year. Scotland, who we have played twice this year and split with, and the Swedish team are always good and an experienced group. Korey Dropkin on the US has been really hot as of late as well so those are the 4 teams we sort of see as our big competition. But we feel no extra pressure at all. We expected ourselves to be in this position all season. It's what we've worked towards and this was just another step in the process for us. We are a very experienced group too." Of course Dunstone also reminded me that in his battle with Dropkin for the NA Cup, he does has a 5-1 advantage entering this week. As they said all week at Canadian Juniors, #DunnyIsMoney!
#10 - Turkey (Dilsat Yildiz) - Similar to the men's comments above, the Turkish junior women will make their debut this year. One main difference for the women though will be the strength of field. Turkey may be seeded the lowest based on experience and resume; however, the women's field is relatively new in comparison to a loaded, experienced men's field. Any of the teams outside the Top 3 could find themselves challenging for a playoff spot or fighting off relegation. Podium might be out of reach, but a win or two wouldn't be surprising.
#9 - Japan (Ayano Tsuchiya) - Japan qualified their first junior women's team at this event since 2013, when they hit the podium with a bronze medal finish. A repeat performance might be a bit tough as this team will probably more be fighting off relegation. They did advance to the B tournament final, losing to Russia but earning their spot here.
#8 - Hungary (Dorottya Palancsa) - The Dark Horse team of the week, probably for the men and women to be honest. Hungary skip Palancsa has been on my future watch list for quite some time now. They faced the long road to qualify here, needing to win the dreaded bronze medal game at the Junior B tournament. However, it is great to see her finally on the world stage. Although, world championship experience is not something she lacks. Remember, she is a two-time World Mixed Doubles Champion (2013, 2015). In fact, she is the current World Mixed Doubles Champion. And she is still a junior! Palancsa also competed at the European Women's Championship this season. While she finished last with a 1-8 record and was relegated, the experience playing the top women's teams in the world (i.e.: Muirhead, Sidorova, Patz etc) should only help her this week against this field. A podium finish might be a stretch but it is not unthinkable. I would say this team has a stronger shot at a playoff push than a threat to be relegated. Don't let the seed fool you....
#7 - Sweden (Therese Westman) - Sweden is always a threat in any curling world championship event. However, this could be an off-year for the Swedish women. Isabella Wrana, the two-time defending champion (and back-to-back forth place finisher at this event) is not here. This is a new representative from the Viking country. Sweden generally is always in the running for the playoffs but this year they are my upset pick to face relegation.
#6 - South Korea (Kim Min-ji) - Kim Min-ji is a team to Watch Out For in Denmark. South Korea has been investing lots of money in their winter sports to prepare for the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics and curling has been near the front of the pack. The South Korean junior women and women's teams have found success on the international stage. It was only 2 years ago South Korea contended for the world junior title, losing to Canada's Kelsey Rocque. Sure this is a different team, and a different team from last season's 5-4 finish, but still a team not to be underestimated. The lack of experience is the main reason for the lower seeding. Don't be surprised though to see this team fighting the North Americans for the top of the podium. They may lack experience but they certainly do not lack talent.
#5 - Russia (Evgeniya Demkina) - What a road for Demkina and Team Russia. Last year they finished a respectable 5-4 at this event, tied for fourth. Unfortunately, they were tied with 3 other teams. After all the tie-breaker scenario's were sorted out, they went from almost a playoff spot to relegation....after finished 5-4. Really? This is what happens with a field of 10 and 3 being relegated. To no surprise the team dominated the Junior B event, going undefeated and claiming the gold medal. Last year's experience, while frustrating I am sure, should also help the team this year. They need to look at the positive in thinking they were 1 game away from the playoffs. Replicating the result of last year is within reach, going 1 better is quite possible as well.
#4 - Scotland (Sophie Jackson) - Talk about pressure, does anyone feel it more than Sophie Jackson and Team Scotland? I mean I know Canada puts a ton of pressure on their teams to perform well on the world stage but Jackson is coming from a very dominant nation over the past decade. In the past 10 years, Scotland has won 5 World Junior Women's Championships. 5!! And no, not all 5 were Eve Muirhead, only 3 of them. Sarah Reid (2007) and Hannah Flemming (2012) also proved Scotland is the nation to beat. Now Scotland hasn't won since Flemming's title but they do have runner-up appearances in 2013 (Flemming) and 2015 (Gina Aitken). Sophie Jackson and company had a strong Scottish Women's Championship this season as well, which should give them some confidence heading into Denmark. Given the more inexperienced field on the world stage, Jackson could be well positioned for another Scottish podium finish.
#3 - Switzerland (Elena Stern) - The Swiss women have dominated the women's curling world for the past number of years, taking 3 of the previous 4 women's world titles. Why should the junior ranks be any different? Well unfortunately the Swiss junior women have struggled lately, last winning the world title in 2005 (Tania Grivel). In fact, since that world victory the Swiss have only found the podium twice and both bronze medals (2009, 2015). But notice one of those was last year. And also notice who was on that team last year, current skip Elena Stern. Starting to see why their seeding is so high? Now, to be fair, this is a completely different team from last year. Last year Stern was playing lead, now she has moved to skip. However, the experience of being here last year and learning the game as a skip will come in handy. She was on a team that eliminated USA's Cory Christensen in a TB before losing the 3/4 game to Sweden only to extract revenge on the Vikings in the bronze medal game. The biggest question will be how Stern adjusts to throwing the big shots at skip. If she can master the strategy and big weight shots when called upon, the Swiss could be back on the podium.
#2 - United States (Cory Christensen) - Welcome back Cory Christensen. Your regular ice time is ready for you! Christensen will be making her fourth world junior appearance in the past five years. Unfortunately Christensen has failed to find the podium each year. Her first appearance in 2012 saw her go 0-9. In 2014 she went 5-4 and just missed a TB by 1 game. Last year, she again went 5-4 and lost the TB to Switzerland. Each time she comes to this event, she betters her previous result. If that streak continues, this could finally be the year Christensen breaks through and makes the playoffs. Without question she is the most experienced skip competing in Copenhagen. The US hasn't been on the podium since 2010 (bronze) and have only 1 world junior women's title (2002, Cassandra Johnson). This field plays well as an advantage for Christensen and she could bring home a medal FINALLY to USA curling.
#1 - Canada (Mary Fay) - A rookie skip is the Favourite? Really? Well come on now, for one she is coming from Canada. This fact alone puts her high on the list of contenders does it not? Canada is the two-time defending champion (skipped by Kelsey Rocque). However, prior to Rocque's two titles, Canada had failed to win gold since 2003 (Marliese Miller). The streak includes final losses by some huge names like Kaitlyn Lawes and Rachel Homan. But Mary Fay is the real deal as well and the field is scattered with rookie skips, so why can't a rookie skip also be the favourite? Fay enters this event fresh off a gold medal win at the Youth Winter Olympic Games in mixed. Similar to her compatriot Matt Dunstone, she saw success in a lead-up event to this world championship. Fay and her Nova Scotia foursome were unstoppable at Canadian Junior's. If they can handle the emotions early on of competing at a world championship, they should find themselves fighting for top spot come the end of the week. An advantage for them as well is having Team Dunstone with them. Their experience can only prove to be beneficial in trying to bring home double gold once again for the Maple Leaf.
1. Canada 1. Canada
2. Switzerland 2. United States
3. Scotland 3. South Korea
4. United States 4. Hungary
5. Sweden 5. Scotland
6. Russia 6. Russia
7. Norway 7. Switzerland
*8. Denmark *8. Sweden
*9. Turkey *9. Turkey
*10. South Korea *10. Japan
JUNIOR MEN'S WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: Canada (Dunstone) def. Scotland (Mouat) - I honestly cannot envision a scenario where Matt Dunstone does not end his junior career finally winning the world championship that has eluded him for so long. Dunstone was on fire during the Canadian Junior Curling Championship and backed it up with more outstanding shot making during his run at Manitoba provincials. He has the big weight hits when needed but the soft draw weight as well to make the finesse shots. Perhaps, more importantly, he has the calm demeanour to lead his team and the smart strategy tactics to beat his opposition. I don't think it will be a walk through the park though. Dunstone is prone to giving up at least 1 game, maybe 2 in this field, before the playoffs. Mouat and Team Scotland are also the perfect team to give him a run. This would be quite the final though and I expect a close battle coming down to Matt sitting in the hack needing a double take-out for the win. And, as we say, #DunnyIsMoney!!
JUNIOR MEN'S BRONZE MEDAL: United States (Dropkin) def. Switzerland (Schwaller) - Dropkin is not going to have an easy time finding his first podium. I think he is going to have fight through a TB battle with Sweden just to make the 3/4 playoff game. While he comes up short to Mouat and Scotland, the extra time off will suit the team well to prep for the bronze medal. We often hear disappointment in playing for bronze but I don't think Korey and Team USA will see it that way. I see them coming out on fire and taking advantage of a disappointed Swiss team, fresh off an extra end loss in the SF to a red-hot Scottish team. Dunstone may take home the NA Cup but Dropkin will join him on the podium making North America 2 for 2.
JUNIOR WOMEN'S WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: Canada (Fay) def. South Korea (Kim) - This is actually a tough call. I started leaning towards Kim and Team South Korea when I was reviewing the seeding resume. But then I remembered back to watching Team Canada (then Team Nova Scotia) at Canadian Juniors and thinking to myself they would be the team to beat at world's. Again, they will be bolstered by the success of Dunstone's team...and the fact I think they go through the RR undefeated. Some teams just have destiny aligned for them and this year Mary Fay has this aura around her. It won't be easy, may take an extra end, but she will give Canada the #3peat and do her part in securing the Maple Leaf double gold.
JUNIOR WOMEN'S BRONZE MEDAL: Hungary (Palancsa) def. United States (Christensen) - Sometimes you have to go on a total gut feeling and make an "out in left field" upset pick...well this is mine. Hungary will come into Denmark with their first appearance and leave with their first ever medal. Palancsa just has the game and experience competing at a world championship to help propel her and her team to a podium finish. I feel for Christensen though. All the appearances at this event, she will come up just short of reaching the podium. It is March Madness after all....somebody has to put on the Cinderella slipper and be the belle of the ball. Why can't it be Hungary skip Dorottya Palancsa? She already has brought curling hardware home to the tiny up and coming curling nation of Hungary in the past....might as well continue the trend.
So what say you rock heads and stoners? Agree with my seedings and predictions? Think I am way off base and crazy? Either way, share your thoughts and opinions with me by commenting on this blog post or hit me up on twitter. Unfortunately the #wjcc2016 are not available on TV but the playoffs will be streamed live. As well, follow CurlingZone and CurlingGeek for updates and live rock-by-rock coverage. Man I love March Madness......