Joe Polo competes at Olympic Team Trials - Mixed Doubles Curling on October 30, 2021 in Eveleth, Minn. Photo courtesy of USA Curling/Bob Weder.
EVELETH, Minn. — In a stacked and experienced field of curlers all vying for a chance at a place in the mixed doubles competition at the Olympic Games Beijing 2022, of course it came down to tiebreakers for who would get into the playoffs.
After the teams of Vicky Persinger/Chris Plys and Sarah Anderson/Korey Dropkin secured the first and second seeds, respectively, with 6-3 records Friday evening at Curl Mesabi, there was a four-way tie behind them at 5-4, necessitating tiebreaker action Saturday morning at 8 a.m. local time. The sun had barely risen through the fog over Minnesota’s Iron Range as Jamie Sinclair and Rich Ruohnen topped John Shuster and Cory Christensen while Tabitha Peterson and Joe Polo knocked off Becca and Matt Hamilton, who had represented Team USA at the Olympic debut of mixed doubles in 2018. Their match would come down to the last rock, delivered by Peterson with her and Polo down one.
“It felt like a really good throw,” said Peterson, a 2018 Olympian on a team skipped by Nina Roth. “We had seen that spot a few times and it kind of would maybe fall back in there if you just got a few hard brushes on it, so I was like, just be a little cautious on the sweep and it kind of just went right in there.”
The result was a score of four and an 8–5 win. Power plays would play a role in both tiebreaker games, with Peterson and Polo prevailing in the final end after the Hamiltons had just stolen two with Peterson/Polo on the power play. Instead of having the two pre-placed stones along the center line, the power play moves the stones on the boundary of the 8- and 12-foot circles for an opportunity to generate more offense. That was the goal of Sinclair/Ruohnen on the adjacent sheet, who used their power play just after allowing a steal of one that tied the game. They scored four to take control of the game.
“It was a good momentum shift because we had just given up the steal so it was basically like we need to switch the momentum and stop the bleeding. No more steals,” said Sinclair.
“We should have probably got a little more but we played it a little safe,” Ruohnen said. “But yeah that was the turning point in the game, obviously. We knew that we had to score there, it was tied going into the sixth so we decided we had to use (the power play) and we made just about every shot.”
Elite curlers are used to playing multiple games in one day but if all goes according to plan for the teams involved in tiebreakers, they’ll need to win four in a row over two days to win the title. The tiebreaker winners will face off in the first playoff game Saturday at noon local time, while Anderson/Dropkin and Persinger/Plys got to rest up for their game at 2:30 p.m., such is the privilege of being one of the top two seeds.
“It feels really good,” Dropkin said of advancing to the playoffs, despite starting off their campaign 0-2. “Obviously we had a struggle early but kind of tested our grit in a way. It’s just nice to be able to go out there and have some fun, smile a little bit and just start making some shots. I’ve got a great teammate so it’s fun when she’s making shots.”
Persinger/Plys dropped their final game of pool play to Madison Bear and Andrew Stopera, but still clinched the top seed.
“It was a tough field so (a record of) 6-3 I thought would’ve been pretty good going into the week, obviously probably would’ve like to have that last one tonight but we’ll take the one seed and just roll with it,” said Plys.
Persinger agreed, reiterating the strength of a field that included multiple Olympians.
“We knew it was going to be like this. There’s just no way that anybody could have gone undefeated in this field,” Persinger said. “I knew it was just going to be kind of a cluster so we really are fortunate to just come out really a game ahead, to be on top like this. So, it could be anybody’s, for sure.”
In addition to the extra rest, the top two seeds have an “extra life,” as Persinger described it, in that the winner of their game goes straight to the final and the loser will face the winner of the noon game. Persinger/Plys topped Anderson/Dropkin in the first draw, 9-4.
“Korey and Sarah are a really good team but I’m sure we’ll have a more competitive game than we had in the first game of the week,” said Plys. “Should be fun.”
For the teams in the tiebreaker, it’s a relatively quick turnaround to get ready for another elimination game. Sinclair/Ruohnen beat Peterson/Polo 6-4 in pool play on Thursday.
“We just got to eat, put our feet up for a second, get some fuel in us and just mentally refocus for the next one,” Sinclair said.