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Curling National Championships Sweep Into Kalamazoo

By Karen Rosen | Feb. 13, 2015, 10:29 a.m. (ET)

John Shuster (C) and his teammates John Landsteiner (L) and Jared Zezel (R) compete in the men's round robin session against China during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Ice Cube Curling Center on Feb. 11, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

For teams competing in the 2015 USA Curling National Championships, winners and losers could be determined not just by inches but also by fractions of points.

The 10 men’s and 10 women’s teams competing Feb. 14-21 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, are vying for national titles as well as the right to represent Team USA at the world championships next month.

The national champs do not automatically get the nod.

Instead, the teams with the most points from the Order of Merit (the season-long points system) that also finish in the top three in Kalamazoo will earn the trips. The women’s event is March 14-22 in Sapporo, Japan, while the men will compete March 28-April 5 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Here’s The Math

On the men’s side, John Shuster, a three-time Olympian who was the skip for the 2014 U.S. Olympic Men’s Curling Team, leads the Order of Merit standings with 40.436 points. Points are based on strength of field and include the top six eligible results since competition began in September. Shuster is followed by the Heath McCormick rink with 38.601 points and the Craig Brown rink with 30.22.

The national champion is awarded an additional 45 points, the runner-up 35 and the third-place finisher 30. Shuster and McCormick can each qualify for worlds if they win nationals. But if Brown defeats Shuster in the final, Shuster will have more points — 75.436 to 75.22 — and punch his ticket to Halifax.

On the women’s side, Nina Roth, the defending national champion, knows how it feels to win and be denied a trip to worlds. Last year, Roth (then known by her maiden name of Spatola), defeated Allison Pottinger in the final. Alas, Pottinger had more points, so she went to New Brunswick, Canada, finishing sixth.

This time, Roth leads the standings with 34.66 points, followed by Aileen Sormunen with 27.35. Either could go to worlds by winning the national title.

They enjoy such a large cushion over the rest of the field that it is unlikely any other team would leap-frog them in the standings.

Junior Cory Christensen carries only 11.7 points into Kalamazoo while two-time Olympian and 2014 Olympic skip Erika Brown has 9.285. Four-time Olympian Debbie McCormick has 9.111 and Patti Lank, a five-time national champion, has 6.65.

Even if one of them claims the national title, Roth would still clinch the worlds berth by finishing second or third.

In a scenario in which Sormunen loses the final against a team other than Roth’s, she’ll go to worlds only if Roth places lower than third.

Confused yet?

Debbie McCormick (L) and Ann Swisshelm (R) compete during the curling women's round robin match between United States and Republic of Korea during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 17, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. 

Mixing And Matching

Many teams have undergone drastic personnel changes since the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, where the U.S. men finished ninth and the women placed 10th.

“Following an Olympic year like last year, sometimes there’s a little bit more retooling of teams,” said Pete Fenson, the 2006 Olympic bronze medalist and 2014 U.S. champion. Rather than competing this year, Fenson is coaching the Heath McCormick rink as USA Curling’s national team coach.

“Sometimes teams have run their course or you start to look forward to the next Olympics,” Fenson said.

At USA Curling's first Athlete Combine in July, 48 athletes were assessed on technical, tactical, physical and mental skills both on and off the ice. Based on their performances, 29 athletes were invited to become part of USA Curling's High Performance Program for the 2014-15 season.

The high performance men’s teams are skipped by McCormick, the 2012 national champion, and Brown, the 2000 and 2008 champ who was a member of the 2014 Olympic team. Roth and Sormunen helm the women’s high performance teams. The junior (under-21) teams are skipped by Korey Dropkin and Christensen.

Essentially operating as national teams, they benefit from staff coaches and funding from USA Curling.

“We hand-selected these teams,” Fenson said. “We picked the players we thought would jell together well. We picked some players with experience and we picked some younger players that are great talents, and then we took them out on tour.”

Fenson said the teams use video and stat analysis packages. Athletes also have a sports psychologist at their disposal.

“Their experiences along with all the things that the program offers them are really what give them a bit of an advantage,” he said.

Joe Polo and Ryan Brunt, who were members of Fenson’s national championship team last year (placing 10th at worlds), are playing front end for McCormick. Olympian Chris Plys is also on McCormick’s team. Dean Gemmell, who won the national title in 2012 with McCormick, has moved up to the skip position this season.

Sister Act

Pottinger, a 10-time national champion, is not competing this season; however, her sister, Kate Bert, is making her skipping debut at nationals.

Roth, who has won two national titles, is once again joined by Becca Hamilton, who was on her squad last year. Roth still has a Peterson on her roster, but now it is 2012 U.S. champion Tabitha Peterson, not sister Tara, who has become vice skip for Sormunen. Jamie Sinclair fills out the Roth rink, while Sophie Brorson, the other member of Roth’s 2014 squad, is now lead for Jordan Moulton, a skip at nationals for the first time. Ann Swisshelm, a 2002 and 2014 Olympian, is coaching Team Roth.

Meeting The Challenge

The U.S. men’s team secured its world championships berth on Jan. 31 with a sweep of Brazil at the Americas Challenge. The Heath McCormick rink represented the U.S., winning the best-of-five series at USA Curling's national training center in Blaine, Minnesota.

Brazil also challenged the U.S. for a world berth in 2009 and 2010, losing both challenges in three straight games. Brazil put forth a challenge in 2012 but later withdrew.

Teammates Ann Swisshelm, Erika Brown and Jessica Schultz compete against Denmark during the women's curling round robin match at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 14, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. 

Experience Counts

Shuster was only 23 when he made his first Olympic team, winning the bronze medal in Torino on Fenson’s team. He skipped the 2010 and 2014 Olympic teams.

“He’s got a lot of big events under his belt,” Fenson said.

Among Shuster’s Sochi teammates, John Landsteiner remains on his team while Jared Zezel is now with Brown.

Long Week

In the round-robin beginning Saturday, each of the 10 men’s and women’s teams faces every other team. The semifinals are Feb. 20 and the finals Feb. 21 at the Wings Stadium Complex. Kalamazoo also hosted nationals in 2010 and, according to local officials, the popularity of the Kalamazoo Curling Club “has skyrocketed” since then.

Shuster and McCormick are slated to meet on Sunday night while Roth and Sormunen face each other Tuesday night.

“It’s a good way to have the teams that are playing well rise to the top,” Fenson said.

The Old Guard

Paul Pustovar, 63, who last won the nationals in 2002 as skip, leads a team in Kalamazoo, but he isn’t the oldest competitor. That honor belongs to Mark Haluptzok, who is two days older. Haluptzok is skipping his team, but also throwing lead stones.

Fenson said curling is a sport where older athletes can continue to compete at the highest levels.

He said for a skip who doesn’t sweep, that “makes it a little easier for his career to be longer. That’s part of the nature of the game. The reason we don’t have too many 63-year-old swimmers at the Olympics is because it’s so physically demanding.”

Although Fenson, 46, has poured all of his energy into coaching this year, he said he has thought about trying to make the Olympic team in 2018.

“I can come back at any time and play again,” he said. “I’m not 63 yet.”

The youngest competitor at nationals is 15-year-old Luc Violette, who is on Dropkin’s high-performance junior team.

“We do have a pretty nice crop of young players,” Fenson said. “This is a good training event for them and a good chance for us as coaches to get another good look at them.”

Outlook For Worlds

The U.S. men have not won a medal at the World Men’s Curling Championship since 2007 (a bronze medal with Todd Birr as skip). The last women’s medal came in 2006 when Debbie McCormick led her squad to a silver medal.

Team USA will try to improve on its sixth-place finish on the women’s side and 10th place on the men’s from 2014.

“I expect we should definitely be close to the playoffs and finish in the top half of the field no matter who wins and represents the United States,” Fenson said.

While Canada won the 2014 Olympic gold medal and Great Britain took the silver, both teams were shut out of the medals at the 2014 World Championships.

Norway defeated Sweden, the Olympic bronze medalist, 8-3 in the final with Switzerland earning the world bronze medal. Canada failed to win a men’s medal at worlds for the first time since 2001.

The U.S., Finland, Scotland and Germany are the only other men’s teams to have won world or Olympic curling medals in this century.

In women’s competition, Canada defeated Sweden 6-3 for Olympic gold, but lost to Switzerland 9-5 at the world championships. Great Britain won the Olympic bronze while Russia was third at worlds.

The U.S., Great Britain, Scotland, China, Germany, Denmark and Norway are the only other countries to have won world or Olympic medals in the last decade.

Live Streaming

Curling fans opened their real and virtual wallets to be able to watch the national championships online.

The competition will be streamed live thanks to a fundraiser in the curling community. Joe Calabrese and Brian Anderson of the 12th End Sports Network will broadcast live coverage from Sheet C/3 at Wings Stadium. A complete game schedule is available at www.usacurl.org. In addition, live scores, stats and standings will be available from USA Curling's partner, CurlingZone.