John Epping shoots a stone during round-robin action at the Ontario Tankard provincial curling championships on Jan. 31, 2019, in Elmira, Ont. (Anil Mungal)

Ontario championships: So what’s the (playoffs) scenario?

February 1, 2019, 5:59 PM

ELMIRA, Ont. — Team John Epping is in. So are Team Scott McDonald, Team Glenn Howard and now Team Charley Thomas as the playoff card has been filled for the Ontario provincial curling championships.

McDonald topped the men’s Tankard table at 9-0 following an 8-4 victory over Team John Epping during Friday’s round-robin finale at Woolwich Memorial Centre.

The skip said it felt good to finish first overall in the round-robin, however, it’s clear he knows it’s a whole new ball game now in the playoffs and two wins away from representing the province at the Tim Hortons Brier.

“It’s nice to go through such a strong field undefeated but at the same time, the round-robin is just jockeying for playoff position,” McDonald said. “We’re in the playoffs now, which was goal No. 1 at the beginning of the week. We’re fortunate to have hammer and choice of rocks in Page 1-2, so we have a bit of work to do to figure out what we’re going to do for that and hopefully, we can perform with those rocks.”

Both teams were assured spots in the Page 1-2 playoff game and were essentially deciding who would finish first overall and hold the hammer to start that game. The battle for the hammer turned into its own battle for the hammer with Team McDonald winning the draw-to-the-button shootout to start the playoff preview and allow them to dictate the flow of the game.

“It was big. You want to start off strong and you want to have some limited control of the game going forward,” McDonald said. “Hammer allowed us to go out and execute our game plan from the beginning and we were able to do that. The first end, we still had a shot against a couple points but we left ourselves an opportunity to score, maybe settled the nerves down a little bit and let us go forward in the second end.”

Epping struggled with their rocks and McDonald expects that will not be the case when they face Saturday afternoon and, potentially, again in Sunday’s final.

“We know they’re going to come out sharp tomorrow and on the rest of the weekend, so we have to be prepared for that,” McDonald said. “This is just one game against John. We’ve played him several times over the years and we know he’s going to come back stronger and is going to want to beat us so we’re going to have to bring our game as well.”

Elsewhere, No. 3 seed Team Glenn Howard are all tuned up for their Page game following a 9-4 win over Team Mark Bice in just six stanzas. Howard will play No. 4 Team Charley Thomas, who also enter the playoffs on a high note by defeating Team Rob Retchless 9-5.

Both of the men’s Page playoffs go down at 2 p.m. ET with the men’s semifinal and final scheduled for Sunday.

Tippin’s wild Friday results in playoff spot / Homan returning to final

It may have taken Team Julie Tippin four days to win two games earlier this week, however, they scored three consecutive victories Friday while facing elimination in order to clinch the third and final playoff spot on in women’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts play.

Tippin capped the surge with a 10-5 win over Team Hollie Duncan in the women’s tiebreaker.

“We knew what we were getting ourselves into at the beginning of the day,” Tippin said. “We just took it one shot at a time and knew that we needed to play really well the whole day and we did. It worked out.”

Tippin carries some serious momentum taking on Team Jestyn Murphy in Saturday morning’s semifinal at 9:30 a.m. ET.

“We kind of had an up-and-down week,” Tippin said. “To finish it off like this, playing well, and then hopefully, carrying through with that momentum into the semifinal, it’s good.”

The reigning champions Team Duncan had their skip back in the lineup for their final game of the season after she had to make an emergency run to a hospital while the remaining trio carried on dropping a 10-3 decision to Team Rachel Homan in their afternoon game.

The women’s semifinal winner faces top seed Homan, the 2017 world champion, in the final at 7 p.m. ET.

In case you’re just joining us …

Epping edged out Howard 7-5 during Thursday’s evening draw in a crucial matchup. The teams entered the heavyweight tilt with identical 6-1 records and the victory pushed Epping into the 1-2 game while Howard is now stuck in the No. 3 spot.

“That was a big win for us,” Team Epping second Brent Laing said. “Both teams knew whoever won that was into the 1-2 game. That’s the goal at the start of the week, so it was great to pull that win out for sure.”

Team Epping relied on their skipper doing what he does best in the game against Howard needing him to pull off a routine (for Epping at least) angle raise double takeout to bail them out of trouble for a single in the fourth frame and avoid potential disaster.

“John’s one of the maybe three or four skips in the world that instead of getting pissed off in those moments kinda relishes the moment and comes up with those big shots,” Laing said. “He gets that look in his eye that all the great players do.

“I’d like to tell you we did it on purpose to build his confidence but we didn’t. I really struggled early and Craig didn’t have his best game early. John does what a great skip does and kept us in the game and gave us a chance to win.”

After Howard took two back in the fifth to lead 3-2 at the break, Team Epping settled down and stomped out a four-ender in the seventh then added a stolen single in the eighth. The 17-time Ontario Tankard champion Howard could only cut the deficit in half with a deuce in nine.

Back to school

Laing is just one of a dozen or so curlers on the ice this week who attended Wilfrid Laurier University located just 20 minutes down the road in Waterloo. The 40-year-old Laing took a trip down memory lane even if what he remembered didn’t quite align with Laurier’s present-day appearance.

“It was kind of cool driving by old University Ave. there. I took a glimpse down and felt really old because I didn’t recognize much but it’s always fun to be back in Waterloo,” Laing said. “I have a lot of great memories here and still a few friends who live here. (Former Laurier teammate) Paul Moffatt is still in town and I ran into an old buddy I grew up with in Meaford together and he lives down here.

“It’s one of my favourites places in Ontario. All the greats come here and the fans always come out in big numbers, which is cool too. Over the years our record has been decent in Kitchener-Waterloo, so hopefully, that continues.”

You couldn’t throw a curling rock without hitting a Laurier alumnus this week. Even during this interview in the hallway of the arena, Team Duncan players Cheryl Kreviazuk, Laura Hickey, and Hollie Duncan walked by. All three won Canadian university championships for the Golden Hawks and Laing said it’s cool seeing how it has grown since his time on campus into a powerhouse program.

“I get the Laurier alumni e-mails and I follow along with how well the Laurier program has developed,” Laing said. “When we were there, it was just kind of barely hanging on and John (Morris) and I ran it, played it, coached it. There were no nationals, no world university games, so it’s awesome to see that and obviously cool to see the Golden Hawks winning and have that reputation as one of the best universities for curling in Canada.

“Now Kelly Middaugh is there playing, it’s pretty cool. It always gives me some pride to see your old university doing well, especially in a sport that I love so much.”

Bice winners on Twitter and now on the ice

Playoffs? All Team Mark Bice wants to do is win a game. Just one game.

After starting the week with seven straight losses, Team Bice picked up their first victory in fashion thumping Team Rob Retchless 7-1 Thursday evening.

While it was their first win on the ice, Team Bice has been winning all week on Twitter. That counts for something too, right?