winter sports

Curling controversy swirls at nationals

I’ve been writing about U.S. Soccer’s efforts to cultivate elite play even if it means breaking up teams and long-established ways of organizing competition. Turns out there’s a similar story in curling.

Part of the issue: The High Performance program, which takes top players and forms teams under a national-team staff. Another part of the issue: The World Championship berths at stake are decided by a convoluted points system that robs the national championship of some of its suspense.

And so some people on the CurlingZone forums are a bit cynical about the big event going on in Jacksonville this week. Between the lack of a shot at the World Championships and the travel to Florida, the women’s tournament only has seven teams. One blogger offers a really cynical take — and please bear in mind I haven’t fact-checked his accusations, though I can verify that the Jacksonville crowd is bigger than “tens.”

But it’s easy to understand what USA Curling is trying to do. You could argue, perhaps, that the High Performance program should be team-based rather than based on individuals. The two top teams, John Shuster’s and Erika Brown’s, weren’t formed through tryouts. (Shuster is now in the HP program; Brown is not.)

The points system debate is shakier. Should one team represent the USA just because it got hot one week or figured out the ice in an unfamiliar venue? I’m inclined to say no.

The first couple of days of the championships saw another controversy. In the showdown between Alex Leichter and Heath McCormick, someone threw popcorn on the ice. Curling is largely self-officiated, but in this case, they needed to call in officials to decide whether a do-over was in order. It was not. But people kept their sense of humor.

So how are the championships going?

The women’s competition has had few surprises. Brown’s team and the three High Performance teams, including the juniors led by Cory Christensen, are a level above the other three teams. Jamie Sinclair beat Brown’s team in the only result I’d call an upset.

The absences hurt. The top four teams are all in the top 50 in the Order of Merit. The other skips in the top 100 — Alexandra Carlson, Patti Lank and Courtney George — are not at nationals. The next highest-ranked skip is Abigayle Lindgren at 169. The Order of Merit rankings don’t tell all — they reward teams that play a lot of tournaments with points on the line — but that’s a big gap.

The men’s competition is less predictable. Here’s how I ranked the teams coming into the tournament, with Order of Merit rankings in parentheses:

  1. John Shuster (14)
  2. Craig Brown (24)
  3. Brady Clark (50)
  4. Pete Fenson (44)
  5. Todd Birr (90)
  6. Korey Dropkin (105)
  7. Alex Leichter (123)
  8. Heath McCormick (77)
  9. Brandon Corbett (109)
  10. Hunter Clawson (194)

But who’s undefeated through five games? Brady Clark, who is not in the HP program but has beaten Shuster and Fenson. Then we have four teams at 3-2, including three HP teams (Shuster, Brown, Dropkin) and Clawson. Torino Olympic medalist Fenson opened with a win against Leichter but dropped the next four games.

Yesterday evening’s draw was full of upsets. Leichter beat Brown. Clawson beat Fenson. Dropkin (the HP junior team) beat Shuster. And though they’re close in my rankings, a lot of people would be surprised to see Corbett beat former national champion McCormick.

That’s certainly enough to keep things interesting. Whatever your opinion of the programs, this is a national championship worth watching on its own merits. And yes, it’s live-streamed. Enjoy.

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