winter sports

Curling at the crossroads

Here’s why you should be paying attention to curling right now:

  1. The Challenge Round, to fill out the field for the national championships, is underway.
  2. The national championships this year are in the unlikely venue of Jacksonville, Fla., a sure sign that someone is bullish on the idea of curling expanding beyond the states that border Canada.
  3. USA Curling, responding to a couple of lackluster performances in the Olympics, now has a “High Performance” program that dominates discussion at CurlingZone.

The High Performance program is a major change in the way curling teams are formed. Curlers usually pick their own teammates, and it’s common to see siblings or people who live close to each other forming a foursome (or fivesome, with an alternate). The top teams may still resemble all-star teams, like the strong group of former Olympians Erika Brown assembled to win qualification to the 2014 Games.

But the Brown team, while taking a solid fourth place in the 2013 World Championships, flopped in Sochi, going 1-8. That was just the latest in a string of disappointing performances in international competition.

  • 2010 Olympics: Men 2-7, Women 2-7 (skips: John Shuster, Debbie McCormick)
  • 2010 Worlds: Men 4th place; Women 7-4/5th place (Pete Fenson, Erika Brown)
  • 2011 Worlds: Men 3-8, Women 6-5 (Pete Fenson, Patti Lank)
  • 2012 Worlds: Men 4-7, Women 7-4/5th (Heath McCormick, Allison Pottinger)
  • 2013 Worlds: Men 5-6, Women 4th place (Brady Clark, Erika Brown)
  • 2014 Olympics: Men 2-7, Women 1-8 (John Shuster, Erika Brown)
  • 2014 Worlds: Men 3-8, Women 6-5 (Pete Fenson, Allison Pottinger)

More results like this, and the USA could be in danger of missing out on future Olympics and World Championships. The USA is currently seventh in the world in men’s curling and eighth in women’s. Those rankings don’t exactly correspond to the selection criteria for the big tournaments, but they show that the USA’s position is far from guaranteed.

So the High Performance program changed things up, holding tryouts and putting together new teams under national coaches. The soccer analogue — going from House teams based on neighborhoods to Travel teams based on tryouts.

In the first year of this system (2014-15), USA Curling put together three men’s teams and three women’s teams, with one team of each gender reserved for juniors. This year, they added another men’s team — essentially, John Shuster’s team joined the program.

Other than adding Shuster’s team, the biggest change in the HP program was the return of 2006 bronze medalist skip Pete Fenson. In the shuffle, Heath McCormick went back to his old team. The program made a couple more changes on the men’s teams during the year.

On the women’s side, the HP roster barely changed, though the two non-junior teams were switched around.

Meanwhile, Erika Brown assembled an all-new all-star team with three 2010 Olympians — Allison Pottinger, Nicole Joraanstad, Natalie Nicholson. Their results have been better than those posted by the HP teams skipped by Jamie Sinclair and Nina Roth. The junior HP skip, Cory Christensen, has had a promising season.

But the Challenge Round this week is men-only. That’s because only seven teams (eight, if Christensen doesn’t win the U.S. junior championship) have entered nationals.

Four men’s teams got byes past the Challenge Round. All four are in the HP program.

That leaves 20 teams in the Challenge Round. In the following sheet, I’ve listed their World Curling Tour Order of Merit ranking — 2015-16 and overall and a few other numbers. The Order of Merit system gives points for each event, and I’ve given the top performances in from each team as well.

You’ll notice something right away: Shuster is far ahead of the pack. If you look at the top 10 performances of the season, it’s overwhelming:

45.8 – John Shuster, 3rd, Grand Slam Challenge, Sept. 13
38.6 – Craig Brown, 2nd, U.S. Open, Jan. 4
34.4 – Shuster, 1st, Huron ReproGraphics, Nov. 1
29.6 – Shuster, 1st, Curl Mesabi, Dec. 20
26.8 – Shuster, 5th, Point Optical, Sept. 28
25.7 – Brown, 5th, Shorty Jenkins, Sept. 20
21.1 – Shuster, 5th, U.S. Open, Jan. 4
21.0 – Mike Farbelow, 3rd, Huron ReproGraphics, Nov. 1
20.9 – Shuster, 1st, Coors Light Cashspiel, Nov. 29
18.0 – Pete Fenson, 3rd, Curl Mesabi, Dec. 20
18.0 – Todd Birr, 3rd, Curl Mesabi, Dec. 20

The other numbers: USA Curling’s seeding for the Challenge Round (based on past nationals and the OOM) and how many times each team has earned less than 4 OOM points in a single event. (Basically, how often they haven’t been close to the top.)

Then I’ve made my own somewhat subjective ranking, taking all of these numbers into account without making a Nate Silver-style formula.

[gview file=”http://www.sportsmyriad.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/curling-2015-16-Mens-rankings.pdf”%5D

A couple of notes:

  • Lyle Sieg is the world senior champion.
  • Yes, Darryl Horsman is from Arizona. Told you the sport was spreading.
  • “NA” in the Challenge Round seedings means they got a bye. “NE” means Not Entered.

Let’s see how these rankings played out in the first Challenge Round games today:

#12 S. Dropkin 13, #25 Horsman 6
#17 Lilla 8, #21 Clawson 6
#10 Leichter 7, #26 Funk 6
#16 Sieg 11, #20 Sobering 8
#6 Farbelow 10, #19 E. Fenson 0
#3 Clark 6, #22 Workin 4
#13 Corbett 6, #11 Jackson 5
#24 Roe 12, #7 McCormick 5
#5 Birr 9, #23 Deeren 4
#14 Smith 7, #9 Bahr 5

So the only three upsets were #13 Corbett over #11 Jackson (which was not an upset if you’re going by the Challenge Round rankings that put Corbett fifth and Jackson 12th), Smith over Bahr, and the stunning win for Roe over McCormick.

The same games, by Challenge Round rankings (and re-sorted):

#1 Clark 6, #16 Workin 4
#15 Roe 12, #2 McCormick 5
#3 Birr 9, #15 Deeren 4
#4 Farbelow 10, #13 E. Fenson 0
#5 Corbett 6, #12 Jackson 5
#11 Smith 7, #6 Bahr 5

#7 Leichter 7, #20 Funk 6
#8 S. Dropkin 13, #19 Horsman 6
#9 Lilla 8, #18 Clawson 6
#10 Sieg 11, #17 Sobering 8

The bracket (basically a triple-elimination tournament) shows us how big Roe and Smith’s wins were. Like Clark, Birr, Farbelow and Corbett, they’re now two wins away from qualifying for nationals.

Clark, Birr and Farbelow should make it through. McCormick would be a favorite based on past years, but he’s looking shaky now.

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