A year ago at this time, Joe Polo and Tabitha Peterson were just starting to build strong rapport on the ice.
The duo had only curled together for about six months when they went on a hot streak to win the 2016 World Mixed Doubles Team Trials. Two months later, the pair became the first U.S. curling team to medal at the world championships when they won bronze.
Polo and Peterson return to the site of their team trials title for the 2017 USA Curling Mixed Doubles National Championship at the Four Seasons Curling Club in Blaine, Minnesota, on March 2-5. The 12-team field will feature 24 of the top curlers in the country.
Polo is hoping last year’s success at the team trials will be beneficial at this year’s nationals.
“It gives us a little confidence,” said Polo, who calls Duluth, Minnesota, home. “We went on to the worlds and won a bronze medal. We got a lot of games under our belts, and that puts some confidence in our coaches and our director to allow us to go to a couple more events throughout the season and try to get a few more games.”
Mixed doubles is a twist on traditional curling, most notably in that teams are made up of one man and one woman, rather than four men or four women. The format, which has been included in the Winter Youth Olympic Games since 2012, makes its Olympic debut at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, making this season all that more important.
The winner this weekend moves on to the 2017 World Mixed Doubles Championship in Lethbridge, Alberta on April 22-29. Also, the top five finishers at nationals automatically qualify for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Mixed Doubles Curling this December.
“The Olympic Trials are 10 months away for mixed doubles, so definitely that pressure is in the back of everybody’s mind,” Peterson said.
Polo and Peterson didn’t actually qualify for the team trials last year; they were the only team to get into the event by a selection committee.
The pair might have surprised the other seven teams in the field. But Polo and Peterson won’t creep up on anyone this year. There’s a big bull’s-eye on the duo, which downed Kroy Nernberger and Nina Roth in last year’s team trials championship match.
“They’re definitely going to be the team everyone’s going to play their ‘A’ game against,” Nernberger said. “I think we’re going to have a target on our back too for doing so well last year.”
The Polo-Peterson team has been competing tough together in the last few months. They placed runner-up at the 2016 Pacific Northwest Mixed Doubles Invitational in Seattle in November and two weeks later lost in the quarterfinals to the eventual winners of the Wall Grain Mixed Doubles Classic in British Columbia.
“We’re playing well,” said Peterson, who lives in Minneapolis, which isn’t far from nationals in Blaine. “We haven’t played mixed doubles actually since December, because the men’s and women’s (four-person team) nationals just took place a week ago. So Joe and I and everybody else in the field as well have been focusing on that.”
While Polo and Peterson haven’t been able to practice together, Nernberger and Roth — who have played together for two years — get quite a bit of time on the ice. The pair competes in a mixed doubles league at their home rink in Madison, Wisconsin, and just had a scrimmage on Feb. 24. That familiarity with one another could pay dividends at nationals.
The teams of Polo-Peterson and Nernberger-Roth are two of the favorites heading into the national championship. But with a stacked field, whichever team is clicking for all four days could bring home the title.
“I don’t know who you’d bet on if you were a betting man,” Nernberger said. “All the teams could win it. I would say for sure six of the teams there could have a good week and win it. Not saying the others couldn’t, but they’d have to have a really, really good week.”
Polo believes the young team of Korey Dropkin and current women’s national champion Jamie Sinclair will be a team to be reckoned with.
“Korey with (Sarah Anderson) went to worlds two years ago, so I think they’re kind of right on top of the list,” Polo said. “John Shuster and Cory Christensen are another great team there — two great skips and great players.”
Polo, Peterson and Nernberger all also pointed to the Hamilton brother-sister pair, Matt and Becca, as serious contenders as well.
“If they (don’t) fight too much out there, I think they’ll be really good,” Polo joked.
Polo knows what he and Peterson have to do to give themselves the best shot to win the national championship.
“Just compete at a high level,” Polo said. “We’ve been training hard trying to keep playing well. Tab’s team made the finals of the women’s nationals here last week and my team won the finals, so we’re playing great. As long as we can keep our shooting percentages up there and keep our heads on straight and make sure we’re not making any dumbs call out there, I think that’s going to be key.”