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Saturday, 11 November 2017

US Olympic Team Trials Preview

#BetweenTheSheets: USA Olympic Trials Preview
Who takes Gold to wear Red, White and Blue?


"O-ma-ha! O-ma-ha! O-ma-ha!" No you are not suffering flashbacks from the days of Peyton Manning yelling for an audible at the line with the Denver Broncos.  Rather, these are the chants of USA curling fans heading to the great state of Nebraska ready to crown their PyeongChang representative.

The U.S. Olympic Team Curling Trials are set to begin Saturday November 11 and wrap up with the crowning of their Olympic men's and women's representatives on Friday November 17 or Saturday November 18, depending how the finals play out (more on that below).

With similarities to Manning letting his team know time was running out and the shift to Plan B was needed, teams heading to Baxter Arena may be calling an "Omaha" of their own as the time for preparation is over.

Welcome to your Olympic dream.....or Olympic heartbreak?!

While the curling trials have been around since 1987, when the sport was still classified "demonstration" by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the 2017 U.S. Olympic Team Curling Trials will be unique in a few ways.

For one, we will see a field of only 3 women's teams competing, a new low for the competition.  Plus the 3 teams competing have virtually little to no experience being in this pressure-packed environment and situation.  While none of the teams are rookies to the tour life, they will certainly be rookies to the media attention, fan appreciation and media scrutiny they are about to be under as they look to become the face of USA Curling in Korea.

Second of all, history could be made when John Shuster hits the ice looking to tie the great Tim Somerville for the record of winning three straight Olympic trials as a skip.  But there is an additional element in play.  Technically Shuster has won the past 3 trials, winning as lead back in 2005 with Pete Fenson.  Shuster will attempt to become the first 4-time US Olympic curling representative.

The storylines are almost polar opposite coming into Omaha.  We have new history being made on the women's side and an attempt at breaking open the history books for longevity on the men's side.  Of course the same headlines could be read come next Saturday when USA Curling crowns two rookie teams as their Olympic representatives as well.  Time will tell!

How familiar are you with the US Olympic Curling Trials?  My guess, and perhaps I am wrong, is most of you have faint knowledge on the history of this event.  In the fine #TwineTime tradition, pull out your Hilroy (Canadian kids will get that reference) scribblers and No. 2 pencils boys and girls and welcome to US Olympic Curling Trials 101:


  • As mentioned, the first trials were held back in 1987 with the winner advancing to the 1988 Winter Olympic in Calgary, AB, Canada.  Bob Nichols and Lisa Schoeneberg were crowned the victors and would go on to represent USA in the demonstration sport known as curling.  Nichols would finish 4th while Schoeneberg would finish 5th.
  • Overall the US Olympic Curling Trials have been held 7 times since 1987.  The 1987 and 1991 winners advanced to compete in the 1988 and 1992 Winter Olympics as a demonstration sport.  The sport, as demonstration, was removed all together from the Olympic program for the 1994 games but was promoted to the official Winter Olympics program in 1998 and has been a part of the Olympic tradition since.
  • The US men have qualified for every Winter Olympics, as a demonstration sport and full programmed sport.  The US women failed to qualify for the 1992 Winter Olympics thus the 1991 trials were held as a men's-only competition.
  • Tim Somerville is the most decorated US curling Olympian, having won three straight Olympic Trails in 1991, 1997 and 2001.  Tim's father, Bud, represented the USA at the 1988 Winter Olympics as vice on Team Nichols.  Bud would join Tim's team for the 1991 trials as second making them the first father-son duo to compete at the Olympics together on the same team.  Shuster, as mentioned, has also competed in 3 straight Olympics and will be going for a 3rd straight win as skip and 4th consecutive.  
  • The most decorated female Olympians are Debbie McCormick and Erika Brown.  The 2003 World Champion McCormick has donned the Red, White and Blue at 3 Olympiads: 2002, 2010, 2014.  She was vice to Kari Erickson when the team won the 2001 trials and played vice again in 2013 for Erika Brown.  At the 2009 trials, McCormick skipped her own team to victory.  Brown has the distinction of competing when the sport was both a demonstration sport and official part of the program.  She has represented the US at the 1988 (lead), 1998 (vice) and 2014 (skip) Winter Olympics.  Shoeneberg, Jessica Schultz and Anna Swisshelm have all competed in 2 Winter Olympics.
  • The USA has had little success on the Olympic podium front.  The US men have collected 2 bronze medals, one as a demonstration sport in 1992 (defeating Canada's Kevin Martin for the bronze) and one in 2006 (defeating Great Britain's David Murdoch for bronze).  Other results for the men include: 4th (1988, 1998), 7th (2002), 8th (2010) and 9th (2014).  The US women have yet to find the podium with their best result being 4th in 2002 (losing bronze to Canada's Kelley Law).  Other results include: 5th (1988, 1998), 8th (2006) and 10th (2010, 2014).  As you can see, based on the past two Winter Olympics, the pressure will be on the 2018 representatives to step up their game and get USA Curling near or to the top of the Olympic table.
  • When looking at dominant US states, Wisconsin and Minnesota continue to lead the way as the only two states to field Olympians.  Wisconsin leads the way overall with 8 combines victories while Minnesota has 5.  However men's teams from Minnesota have claimed 3 straight US trials victories to close the gap on Wisconsin's lead 3-4.  For the women, it is the opposite as Wisconsin has produced the past 2 women's winners to increase their lead to 4-2.  For 2017, Wisconsin will be solely represented by Roth (although Shuster and Brown are from there as well).  Minnesota looks to have an almost certain lock on both titles as Sinclair, Christensen, Shuster, Brown, McCormick and Birr call Minnesota clubs home.  Of course Washington could produce its first curling Olympians should Clark take home the title.
  • In a true #growthesport mentality, USA Curling has decided to offer up the hosting duties to some non-traditional curling states in the past.  While cities in Minnesota hosted the trials from 1987-1997, the hosting rights have since moved to various states.  Ogden, Utah hosted in 2001 (smart move considering the 2002 Winter Olympics competition would also be held here).  Madison, Wisconsin hosted in 2005.  Broomfield, Colorado hosted 2009 and Fargo, North Dakota hosted in 2013.  The tradition continues this year with Omaha, Nebraska serving as the Olympic Trials backdrop.

Now, settle in the hack folks and get ready for the big takeout, it's time to break open the granite and see who will compete for Olympic glory in Omaha, Nebraska.  Note, teams listed below are based on the pre-assigned seeding according to OOM points (YTD record in parenthesis).

USA Olympic Curling Trials

Omaha, Nebraska

2013 Champions:  John Shuster (men) and Erika Brown (women)

Format:  5 men's teams competing in a double RR.  3 women's teams competing in a triple RR.  Top two teams advance to Best-of-3 playoff for the Olympic berth.

MEN

1.  John Shuster (31-23) - The two-time defending Olympic trials champion (well three-time if you also add in his 2005 W as lead for Pete Fenson) will look to re-write the history books and continue his US domination.  Shuster has had a rough go as an Olympic skip, finishing 8th (2010) and 9th (2014) respectively.  Although he does have a bronze medal win as lead from 2006, you have to imagine he wants to find the podium as a skip.  The team has been on the upswing the past few years, reaching back to back playoffs at the world championships and picking up a bronze medal in 2016.  They have qualified in 3 of 6 events, including a QF result at the season opening Tour Challenge Tier I.  Shuster has a YTD record of 1-0 against his competition, having defeated Brown at the Shorty Jenkins.  Always a threat, expect him to be in the playoff hunt.

2.  Craig Brown (13-17) - Don't let the overall YTD record mislead you folks, Brown has played a pretty solid season.  They have qualified in 3 of 5 events, including reaching the SF in St. Paul.  The problem is consistency.  The team plays well in one event and then completely falls apart the following week, as shown by their 0-5 record at Shorty Jenkins and 1-3 record at the Oil Heritage.  If we put those results to the side though, the teams sports a record of 11-6.  They also own a YTD record of 2-2 against their competition here, losing to Shuster, splitting with McCormick and beating Clark.  This is a tough team to call.  If they start out with a W expect them to do well, similar to their 3 events they qualified.  If they start with a L, it could be a long week.  And who do they open play against?  The next seeded team of course....

3.  Heath McCormick (23-15) - Heath "Heater" McCormick has been one of the most beloved curlers to come out of the US in years but has struggled to find the consistency to make it to the big show.  McCormick has only 1 US Curling Championship and 1 World Championship appearance to his illustrious career (2012).  Back at the 2013 US Trials, fresh off a 2012 US title and world appearance, the team finished a disappointing third and failed to reach the championship final.  Last season McCormick looked to be the strongest, and most consistent, US men's team on tour picking up strong results and winning events yet crumbled down the finish line and coughed up their shot at going to the world championship with their disappointing 2017 US Curling Championship result.  This season the team has qualified in 2 of 6 events; however, they did go undefeated in taking home the St. Paul Cash Spiel title.  Worth noting they defeated Birr in the QF and Brown in the SF en route to the championship win.  They own a 2-1 record against their competition, after suffering a loss to Brown recently in Sarnia.  With Shuster being to odds on favourite here, McCormick has to be considered the team to Watch Out For....and perhaps the sentimental favourite as well?

4.  Brady Clark (22-9) - Brady Clark has to be everyone's favourite dark horse story....and could once again be the dark horse team of this event.  Clark is not a High Performance Program (HPP) team yet continues to be one of the top teams to compete on tour year in and year out representing USA.  The Seattle, Washington based team has qualified in 4 straight events leading up to coming to Omaha.  They are also fresh off their first championship final appearance of the season at the Oil Heritage Classic in Sarnia where they went undefeated until suffering a finals loss to Glenn Howard (who is competing for a Canadian Olympic Trials spot right now).  Clark sports a 1-1 record against his competition, with a win over Birr and a loss to Brown.  Consider this team the #TwineTime dark horse this week.

5.  Todd Birr (12-10) - By now everyone is familiar with the Team Birr story and how they fought for the right to compete here this week.  We will spare the details in this preview (but if interested check out the #TwineTime story from a few weeks back HERE).  Lets talk about the results.  The team has competed in 4 #wct events this season and has qualified in their past 3, not a bad lead up into the biggest event of the year.  The tell tale stat on this team is the qualify of competition they have faced.  To date they have only played 6 teams ranked in the Top 100 (based on OOM).  And their record in those 6 games?  0-6!  To add some salt to the wound, two of those losses came in QF to competition they will hit the ice against here: McCormick (St. Paul) and Clark (Oil Heritage).  And one of their other losses was to fellow American Pete Fenson (who failed to qualify here but was the 2013 runner-up).  Birr won half the battle in fighting to be here but can they complete the fight on the ice now?

Projected Standings:  1. Team McCormick  2. Team Clark  3. Team Shuster  4. Team Brown  5. Team Birr

USA Olympic Trials Final:  Team McCormick def. Team Clark 2-1


WOMEN

1.  Nina Roth (22-13) - What a crazy two years it has been for Nina Roth!  Back in 2014, Roth won the US national title but was not selected to represent the US at the world championships.  It was a controversial decision that still baffles curling fans today (similar to Clark winning in 2016).  Roth would win silver at the 2016 and 2017 national's but saw a reversal of fortune in 2017 by losing the final and still going to worlds as Team USA based on her results over the season.  From a consistency stand point, Roth may be considered the slight favourite here this week.  This season has truly been a breakout for her on a #wct level, qualifying in 3 of 6 events.  The big "put on notice" moment happened when Roth reached the championship final in Calgary and followed it up with a championship victory the next event in Portage (getting revenge from the Calgary final loss on 2014 Olympic champ Jennifer Jones in the QF before knocking off Sweden's Anna Hasselborg in the final).  The team is 1-0 against her competition this season, having just defeated Christensen in Whitby as the final tune-up event.

2.  Jamie Sinclair (24-14) - The defending US national champs have had an outstanding season, qualifying in 4 of 6 events and winning the Shorty Jenkins Classic in Cornwall.  The team has also gone from competing in the Tour Challenge Tier II to start the season (SF l. to Carey) to qualifying at The Masters (winning a TB vs. Sidorova and losing the QF to Jones).  The big question mark for the 25yo will be this is her first Olympic trials and we will see how she handles the pressure.  She owns a 1-0 record against her competition, having defeated Christensen in the C-qualifier of the Autumn Gold Classic in Calgary.

3.  Cory Christensen (23-16) - With Roth and Sinclair basically being tabbed co-favourites this week, Christensen automatically falls into the dark horse category right?  Well sort of.  Can we really call a 4-time US junior champion and 2016 world junior silver medal winner a dark horse?  Perhaps on level of experience sure.  But based on results, not so much.  The gap between these three teams is closer than any, perhaps similar to the Swiss Olympic trials.  Even as a junior Christensen has been a steady competitor on the #wct, picking up her first tour title back in 2013!  This season the team has qualified in 3 of 7 events, including SF appearances in Oakville and Stockholm.  Sure they sport the 0-2 record against their competition but in a triple RR format with only 3 teams, anything can happen.  #TwineTime made the call last season declaring Cory Christensen as the future of USA Curling and the expected 2022 Winter Olympics representative; however, they may just peak at the right time and move up the expectations by a full 4-year Olympic cycle!  Watch out for a team that really has everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Projected Standings:  1. Team Sinclair  2. Team Roth  3. Team Christensen

USA Olympic Trials Final:  Team Roth def. Team Sinclair 2-1

There you have it rock heads and stoners, the #TwineTime preview and predictions for who may don the Red, White and Blue in PyeongChang this upcoming February.  What are your thoughts?  Agree or disagree with the predictions above?  Share your comments and predictions with the curling world in the comment section below or on social media.  Remember, if tweeting along with the action next week to use the hashtag #CurlingTeamTrials18 to join the conversation.

Also, through a great partnership with NBC, select RR games will be streamed FREE on the NBC Sports App and on NBCSports.com.  The playoffs will air on NBCSN.  The full webstream schedule can be found HERE.  How is that for #growthesport folks?

Best of luck to all 8 teams competing in Omaha.  Of course, #TwineTime wishes fam member Chris Plys a small extra curling stone of luck but, honestly, I have met most of these teams through attending various events on tour over the past few years and they are all awesome people.  Lets hope for good stones, good ice and great curling all week!

And #StayTuned curling fans as the preview blog posts are not done yet.  We have the Canadian Mixed Curling Championships kicking off this upcoming weekend from Swan River, MB AND the European Curling Championships sliding out of the hack from St. Gallen, Switzerland.  Previews for both events will be sliding into your house soon.  Not to mention the Road to the Roar Canadian Olympic Trials last-chance qualifier will wrap up this weekend.

It is also worth noting now #TwineTime will be taking a brief hiatus from the sports world next week as I take a much needed vacation away to a sunny tropical destination to celebrate my own mental health (and birthday).  Enjoy the curling all week!