US men clinch berth to Sochi

By Terry Kolesar | Dec. 15, 2013, 12 a.m. (ET)
Dec. 15, 2013

USA men qualify for 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi

(FUESSEN, Germany) - Team USA will be represented by two teams for the upcoming 2014 Olympic Winter Games as the American men clinched the final available berth by defeating the Czech Republic today at the Olympic Qualification Event at the BLZ Arena.

A big scoring end late in the game gave John Shuster (Duluth, Minn.) and teammates Jeff Isaacson (Gilbert, Minn.), Jared Zezel (Hibbing, Minn.), and John Landsteiner (Duluth, Minn.) a comfortable cushion and that led to an eventual 8-5 victory over Jiri Snitil's Czech rink.

Facing elimination and the threat of not having a berth for Sochi multiple times this week, Team USA persevered to win its final five games. "We always seem to pick it up and bring it up the next step and find a way to play better in a game," Landsteiner said.

The Shuster rink, with Craig Brown (Madison, Wis.) at alternate and Tim Muller (Hibbing, Minn.) at the coaching helm, will be nominated to the U.S. Olympic Team pending approval by the United States Olympic Committee. 

"The butterflies of winning for an opportunity like this, they never get old. That's why we play this game," said Shuster, 31, who won Olympic bronze in 2006 in the lead position. "These guys work their tails off and they're some of the best in the business.  I'm extremely proud of how well our team has played the entire season and especially here when we had our backs against the wall."

The game was tight against the Czech Republic until the game-changing eighth end when the Americans scored five points to break open the game. 

"The five ender - sometimes they just come out of nowhere. We played a good end and got some rocks positioned well," said Isaacson, 30, who made his Olympic debut in 2010. "Truthfully, I didn't envision I'd be back [at the Olympics]. There are so many great teams you have to go through ... and it's such a process and life takes over so you never know. You have to take them when you can." 

Isaacson took time away from competitive curling post-Vancouver and works as a teacher in northern Minnesota. "Ike's become a premier third in the world through hard work and practice," Shuster said about his vice skip. "These front end guys ... I wanted a couple of young guys [Zezel and Landsteiner]. I remember what it was like to be one of those guys and how important I thought we were to the success. I found two gems who work their butts off."

After the teams tested the waters and blanked the first end, the U.S. kept the Czechs on their toes by placing two stones in the four foot behind a guard just off the centerline. Snitil was heavy on his first draw and USA removed his stone, forcing the skip to attempt a double takeout. The Czechs removed one and the U.S. stole a point to be the first side on the scoreboard. 

A missed takeout early in the third end allowed the Czechs to get two stones in the house. Shuster couldn't convert the double takeout with his final shot, giving Snitil a draw for two points and the early 2-1 lead. The fourth end saw the Americans chasing Czech stones for the entire end, leading to an eventual blank end. 

Two great shots by Isaacson and the U.S. seemed set up for a productive fifth end as they got two stones hidden behind guards. After Snitil's double takeout failed, Shuster was able to further set the end up with a draw around the center guard into the four-foot. It sank a little deep and Snitil followed his shot with a near freeze that forced Shuster to try a difficult draw for the second point. His final stone rubbed the guard and the Americans settled for a single to tie the game, 2-2.

The sixth end was blanked as the Czechs couldn't get the deuce set up. In the seventh end, a perfect freeze by Isaacson to place the American stone on the button, with Czech and American stones behind it for protection, had the Czechs on the ropes. Martin Snitil wasn't able to run it back and out of the house and Shuster was able to remove the Czech stone in the four-foot - and the one in the back of the rings as a bonus. With two American stones in the four-foot, Jiri Snitil played the tapback and left his stone in a perfect position as it was protected by American stones. Shuster played a guard in the top of the house, content to give the Czechs a single. Snitil tried to draw down to the button for second count, but it slipped too deep.

The tide turned fully in the favor of the Americans in the eighth end. A raise double takeout by Zezel cleaned up the house for the U.S. and promoted one of their stones in. After the Czech second missed the runback, the U.S. buried a stone in the four-foot behind the center guard. Isaacson's second stone - a hit and roll - put two stones back in scoring position. The Czech skip then was light on his tap attempt and his stone ended up in third position just above the U.S. rocks. Shuster played the takeout and it spun and knocked out the remaining Czech stone in the back of the house. The result was four U.S. stones in the house after that. Snitil's runback failed and Shuster had a draw for five to take a 7-3 lead.

The Czechs scored two in the ninth end but the U.S. had a two-point lead and the last-rock advantage - the ideal situation for the Americans. They kept the rings relatively tidy and Shuster clinched the win with a takeout.

"I've been dreaming about this for a long time - that's why you curl - with the main goal of getting to the Olympics," said Zezel, 22, who will play in his first Olympic Games. "I've been working really hard ever since juniors and when John [Shuster] picked me up, I thought it would probably be a pretty good chance to get to Sochi. He taught us a whole bunch of stuff, and we just kept getting better and better. Everything is finally happening!"

Tune into NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) for a three-hour recap show at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday, Dec. 19, highlighting the road to Sochi for the American men. 

"This is way better than winning Fargo. It actually might sink in this time as opposed to before. The way it ended was different too," said Landsteiner, 23, reflecting on winning the Olympic Team Trials last month and then having to compete in the Olympic qualifier. "Playing at the Olympics? There won't be anything like it." 

The U.S. men will travel to Scotland for a World Curling Tour competition in early January and be a part of Team North America at the 2014 World Financial Group Continental Cup in Las Vegas as they prepare for the Olympic Games. 

Game score:
USA 010 010 050 1 - 8 
*Czech Republic 002 000 102 0 - 5 
*last rock in first end

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For more information: Terry Kolesar, USA Curling,, 715-344-1199, Ext. 202, or 608-338-9900 (cell).